A recent decision by North Carolina’s top court compels the state to turn over close to $800 million to the education system, a move that could influence other states facing challenges over the adequacy of public school funding
In a 4-3 ruling handed down Nov. 4, the North Carolina Supreme Court took the matter out of the legislature’s hands after almost 30 years of litigation and ordered officials to transfer the funds directly from the state treasury to agencies overseeing education and teacher preparation.
“Far too many North Carolina schoolchildren, especially those historically marginalized, are not afforded their constitutional right to the opportunity to a sound basic education,” Associate Justice Robin Hudson wrote in the majority opinion in Hoke County Board of Education v. North Carolina. The state, she said, “has proven — for an entire generation — either unable or unwilling to fulfill its constitutional duty.”
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Part of a wave of lawsuits from the 1990s that challenged inequitable school funding systems, the case — first known as Leandro v. North Carolina — shed light on the lack of educational opportunities in five rural counties, where underqualified teachers, scarce supplies and outdated textbooks were the norm. The plaintiff districts argued that the state was responsible for making up the funding gap between poor and wealthy districts.
The case languished in the courts even as the state amassed a budget surplus following the Great Recession. Derek Black, a law professor at the University of South Carolina and an expert witness for the plaintiffs, said the ruling sends a signal to other states that legislators can’t ignore the law.
It’s Friday. It’s late. I don’t assume readers & don’t normally show emotion but for posterity’s sake: The NC Supreme Ct edges me to tears w/ an opinion I awaited for 21yrs—the most forceful & honest acceptance of the judicial role to enforce the right to education of our time. https://t.co/FSUB5Jav6v
— Derek W. Black (@DerekWBlack) November 5, 2022
“The games that legislatures play are … wars on the right to education, wars on the constitution,” said Black, who attended “marathon” hearings on the case when he was in law school at the University of North Carolina. “When the judiciary speaks, there is not some other option.”