NC Supreme Court orders transfer of historic education funding

The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in Leandro’s case, ordering the state to spend $1.75 billion on public school funding.

The court ruled 4-to-3 in favor of funding the 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 — that it has either been unable or unwilling to fulfill its constitutional duty,” Hudson wrote. “Now, this Court must determine whether that duty is an obligatory obligation or an impossible suggestion.” We hold it: The state cannot indefinitely violate North Carolina’s constitutional rights without resulting in free schools.

The comprehensive remedial plan was part of a settlement between Attorney General Josh Stein’s school office and low-income districts that had obtained the status for the first time since 1994. That district asserted that the state did not meet the rights of children “to the privilege of education,” as granted in the constitution of the state.

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

“The state constitution expressly recognizes that it is the General Assembly’s responsibility to develop the education policy and provide its funding pursuant to legislative authority,” Phil Berger, Jr., wrote in a dissenting opinion.

Today’s court order directs the General Assembly to implement the second and third years of the 8-year plan, at an estimated cost of approximately $1.75 billion. Certain line items already partially or fully established in the recent state of the budget are to be counted towards the whole.

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

The two biggest items in the plan — for fiscal years 2022 and 2023 — are to increase teacher and instructional pay and the number of “authority” teachers who teach art, music and physical education.

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 agencies and families that advocates for Leandro’s comprehensive remediation plan.

“We cry, we celebrate,” says Liber. “We are ecstatic that this has come to fruition.”

Leaders in the North Carolina General Assembly have not yet responded to the order’s message.

The book says that he and other advocates are concerned about whether he is up to the task of lawmakers.

“I always have concerns,” Liber said. “I’m from North Carolina and I’ve seen what I’ve watched over the years as our General Assembly has taken down our education system.”

Superintendent Roy Cooper issued this statement: “It is our constitutional duty to ensure that every child has access to a healthy basic education. As the NC Supreme Court affirmed today, we must do more for our students all across North Carolina.”

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