North Carolina Court to Revisit School Funding Case with GOP Majority

Twenty months back, North Carolina’s top judicial body mandated the state legislature to allocate $800 million for improving K-12 education — a pivotal ruling that appeared to bring a lengthy legal dispute over adequate school funding to a close.

The verdict, issued 28 years after the lawsuit was initiated, was meant to support initiatives in some of the state’s most impoverished districts by enhancing teacher and principal training, increasing books and supplies, and expanding pre-K programs.

However, these solutions are now at risk as the Supreme Court, after a recent political shift, revisits the case.

Following a trial court’s directive to allocate surplus funds for the remedies, Republican leaders controlling the legislature filed an appeal. They contend that issuing a “sweeping statewide order” based on the claims of the original five impoverished rural districts exceeded the court’s authority.

To advocates of equity and the affected districts, the move appears to be a political maneuver. Under the previous Democratic majority on the court, the ruling was narrowly in favor of the districts with a 4-3 vote. But with the court now having a 5-2 Republican majority post the November 2022 election, the balance has shifted.

If the opinion is overturned, today’s students would be the third generation to go through the state school system without the relief, as stated by lead attorney Melanie Dubis during the oral arguments in late February.

Attorney Matthew Tilley, representing House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger in the case, declined to comment on ongoing litigation as per the firm’s policy.

The court’s decision on the case may take months, leaving districts in the state, which ranks poorly in per-student funding nationally, in uncertainty. Experts believe the case extends beyond the education budget and raises questions about legislative authority in a state where court battles overpowers have occurred.

“This situation is about exerting control over the judiciary,” stated lawyer Ann McColl, co-founder of The Innovation Project, a school leadership network. “The balance of power critical for government function is at risk.”

‘Rectifying that injustice’

Ahead of the 70th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s desegregation ruling this spring, some see the conservative court’s move to revisit Hoke County Board of Education v. North Carolina, also known as the “Leandro” case, as a setback to address segregation’s repercussions.

Ensuring investment in schools and districts with a high concentration of students of color is vital to correct historical injustices, mentioned Ary Amerikaner, co-founder of Brown’s Promise, a nonprofit advocating for integration. Racial inequities are deeply connected to underfunding in schools, particularly districts serving minority populations, as per a 2020 report from Public School Forum.

The funding disparity between affluent and impoverished districts has widened, impacting predominantly minority students in districts with weaker tax bases like the original plaintiffs. These districts have resorted to external providers for virtual teaching and substitute teachers amid wait for the remedial plan’s funding.

For Anthony Jackson, superintendent of Chatham County Schools, implementing the plan would address critical needs such as competitive salaries and additional pre-K slots for children on waiting lists.

Jackson lauded the potential resources to attract and retain top teachers and improve overall school leadership, emphasizing the positive impact on districts like Vance County, where he previously served as superintendent.

Under the proposed plan, Vance stands to receive an additional $16 million by 2028, a 39% rise that could support hiring more staff and expanding services, according to advocacy group Every Child NC.

The state only offers public pre-K to 19% of 4-year-olds without extending the program to 3-year-olds, as indicated by a recent early-childhood education report.

Despite endorsing the Leandro plan in principle, some argue it does not directly influence student performance. Marcus Brandon of NorthCarolinaCAN cautions against overlooking economic resources, infrastructure needs, and mold concerns in schools while focusing solely on academic outcomes.

The ongoing legal battle surrounding the Leandro case involves complex arguments about the court’s authority to mandate extensive educational policy changes. Notably, a 2004 court order limited relief terms to one county, a point emphasized by legislative representatives contesting the state’s obligation to enact broader measures across multiple districts.

While the case’s outcome remains uncertain, the delay in implementing the relief measures hampers any swift resolution, highlighting challenges in enforcing court-mandated funding decisions.

Derek Black, a legal expert closely monitoring the case, sees potential implications for the rule of law depending on the court’s decision, underscoring the importance of judicial consistency in upholding prior rulings for stability in the legal system.