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NC Supreme Court orders historic transfer of education funding

NC Supreme Court
North Carolina Judicial Branch Official Website

The North Carolina Supreme Court has issued its decision in the landmark Leandro case, ordering the state legislature to spend $1.75 billion in public school funding.

The court ruled 4-to-3 in favor of funding a plan to improve public schools across the state. The vote was split along party lines. Justice Robin Hudson, a Democrat, wrote the majority opinion and Justice Phil Berger Jr., a Republican, wrote the dissent.

“The State has proven — for an entire generation — either unable or unwilling to fulfill its constitutional duty,” Hudson wrote. “Now, this Court must determine whether that duty is a binding obligation or an unenforceable suggestion. We hold the former: the State may not indefinitely violate the constitutional rights of North Carolina schoolchildren without Consequence.”

The Supreme Court’s decision supports Superior Court Judge David Lee’s 2021 order to move $1.75 billion from state coffers for the implementation of the education remedial plan he approved earlier. The transfer had been blocked on appeal.

The comprehensive remedial plan was part of a settlement between Attorney General Josh Stein's office and low-wealth school districts that originally sued the state in 1994. Those districts claimed the state was not meeting the rights of children “to the privilege of education,” as granted in the state constitution.

Angus Thompson, one of the original plaintiffs in the Leandro case, stands at the podium at an Every Child NC rally outside the North Carolina Legislature.
Josh Sullivan
In this Aug. 29, 2022 file photo, Angus Thompson — one of the original plaintiffs in the Leandro case — speaks at the Halifax Mall in downtown Raleigh.

Republican House and Senate leaders in the General Assembly sought to overturn a lower court’s order to fund the settlement, appealing the case to the North Carolina Supreme Court. They assert the case hinges on the separation of powers between branches of government, arguing that no court has the power to order the state legislature to spend tax dollars.

“The state constitution explicitly recognizes that it is for the General Assembly to develop educational policy and to provide for its funding in keeping with its legislative authority,” wrote Phil Berger, Jr. in his dissenting opinion.

In reaction to the state Supreme Court decision, Gov. Cooper said in a statement: “It’s our constitutional duty to ensure every child has access to a sound basic education. As the NC Supreme Court has affirmed today, we must do more for our students all across North Carolina."

The court’s opinion today orders the General Assembly to fund the second and third years of an 8-year plan, at an estimated cost of about $1.75 billion. Some line items already enacted in part or in full in the most recent state budget would count toward that total.

The plan would inject funding into teacher recruitment and support, early childhood education, teacher pay and much more. It would expand school funding for low-wealth school districts, at-risk children and students with disabilities.

Two of the biggest ticket items in the plan — for fiscal year 2022 and 2023 — is to increase teacher and instructional staff pay and to fund “enhancement” teachers that teach art, music and physical education.

A win for education funding advocates

Tamika Walker Kelly poses at the Halifax Mall in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Liz Schlemmer
Tamika Walker Kelly is the director for the North Carolina Association of Educators.

Susan Book is the mother of a student with disabilities in Wake County Public Schools, and a member of Every Child NC, a coalition of organizations and families that have advocated for full funding of the Leandro comprehensive remedial plan.

“We’re in tears, we’re celebrating, we’re Tweeting, we’re Facebooking,” said Book. “We are ecstatic.”

Tamika Walker Kelly, the president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, was among those celebrating on Friday.

“Today’s ruling reaffirming that the General Assembly must fund the Leandro education plan is a victory for everyone who believes all students, regardless of their background, deserve to receive a fully funded education that prepares them for the future,” she said.

Republican leaders yet to react to Friday’s ruling

Leaders in the North Carolina General Assembly have not yet directly responded to the news of the order.

In a tweet, a senior policy attorney for Senate Leader Phil Berger's office Brent Woodcox indicated Republicans would appeal the decision if the party wins a majority on the state Supreme Court in the upcoming election.

“Prediction: Not a dime of taxpayer money is ultimately spent on this unprecedented and unconstitutional order before it is blocked and reversed by a newly seated NC Supreme Court next year,” tweeted Woodcox.

Two of the seats currently held by Democratic justices are on the ballot in Tuesday’s midterm elections.

Book says she and other education funding advocates are concerned about whether lawmakers will comply with the order.

“I always have concerns,” Book said. “I’m from North Carolina and I’ve watched what I’ve watched over the years as our General Assembly has picked away at our education system.”

Angus Thompson of Lumberton, an original plaintiff with his daughter and a member of Every Child NC urged caution.

“People from across the state have been standing up for the rights of our children,” he said. “We protested, we prayed, and now we vote. We need leaders to help us sustain this victory.”

Whether the decision of the court’s Democratic majority materializes in the transfer of funds to schools could depend on the outcome of Tuesday’s election.

The Associated Press and WUNC’s Laura Pellicer contributed to this report.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email: lschlemmer@wunc.org