Republican NC Supreme Court rehears arguments in critical public school funding debate

Michael Perchick Image
Thursday, February 22, 2024
NC Supreme Court rehears public school funding case
Education funding litigation that originated 30 years ago returned to North Carolina's highest court.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Longstanding education funding litigation is returning to North Carolina's highest court hardly a year after a majority of justices - all Democrats - agreed that taxpayer money could be moved to spend on addressing schooling inequities statewide without the express approval of legislators.

What's apparently changed to permit Thursday's scheduled oral arguments at the state Supreme Court is its composition. A few days after the court's milestone 2022 ruling, registered Republicans won back a majority on the seven-member court after success in statewide elections for two seats.

With the partisan shift having taking effect, the five GOP justices agreed last fall to consider additional arguments sought by Republican legislative leaders opposed to the 2022 decision. Those lawmakers contend only the General Assembly can appropriate state funds.

The justices wrote that Thursday's matter would be narrowed upon whether Superior Court Judge James Ammons, the latest to oversee the litigation originating almost 30 years ago, had authority last spring to enter an order declaring the state owed $678 million to fulfill two years of an eight-year plan.

But legal briefs filed for Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore essentially seek to overturn the November 2022 decision by the then-Democratic controlled court. Action by Ammons' predcessor, the late Judge David Lee, who approved the initial $5.4 billion plan and ordered some taxpayer funds be moved, served as the focus of the 2022 ruling.

The legislators' attorneys say there's never been a legal determination that school districts beyond rural Hoke and Halifax counties had failed to live up to requirements affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1997 and 2004 that the state constitution directs all children must receive the "opportunity to receive a sound basic education." And, the lawyers argue, school funding decisions are political questions that judicial branch must avoid.

A host of other legal parties, including several school districts, say Ammons' statewide order must be upheld and implemented. They say it's the judiciary's job to fix statewide constitutional deficiencies in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade instruction that the executive and legislative branches failed to address.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper is not a legal party in the case but supports carrying out the plan that his administration helped create.

The attorneys supporting the plan - which in part includes funding to improve teacher recruitment and salaries, expand pre-K and help students with disabilities - argue that Moore and Berger are trying to relitigate the 2022 decision, but it's well past time procedurally to rehear the matter.

The justices were unlikely to rule from the bench at the close of oral arguments. The court's next opinion date is March 22. The new Republican majority has ruled favorably for GOP legislators by striking down previous redistricting decisions and upholding a photo voter identification mandate.

Education and civil rights advocates scheduled a rally outside the Supreme Court building while the case was heard.

The litigation began in 1994, when several school districts and families of children sued and accused the state of state law and constitutional violations. The matter often has been referred to as "Leandro" - for the last name of one of the students who sued.

In requests repeating from the 2022 case, lawyers for the school districts asked that Associate Justice Phil Berger Jr. - son of the Senate leader - recuse himself from the case, while attorneys for the elder Berger and Moore asked that Associate Justice Anita Earls not participate. This year's recusal motions were denied, as they were in 2022, and Earls, a registered Democrat, and the younger Berger, a Republican, both were expected to participate Thursday.

"It will be much clearer moving forward how education and funding decisions are going to be made. Is this going to be something that will be dealt with by the legislature and the governor's office with the courts as a check or is this something that's going to be tied up in a court plan that wouldn't necessarily be able to be amended as time goes on," said Mitch Kokai, a senior policy analyst with the John Locke Foundation.

Kokai said other points of contention include the scope of Leandro and the role of funding in meeting the obligation of a sound basic education.

"How do you get to ensuring that right to the sound basic education? There are a lot of people, including the plaintiffs in this case, who say it's money, you got to pump more money into it. But our state Supreme Court, in looking at this case several times has never said, 'OK, you're right, we're going to guarantee that more money is spent,'" said Kokai, who highlighted the state budget has included increases to public education spending.

Thursday, students, parents, educators, and advocacy groups gathered outside the Old Capitol prior to a march to the Legislative building, imploring the funding of Leandro, and support from lawmakers in future public education funding efforts.

"I have a child that has IEP. I feel like our children need a lot of people there that's going to help us with them and their mental health issues and different kinds of disabilities I feel like if they put more funding in the school that can kind of stop a lot of things that are happening outside the school system," said Khristen Sellers, a parent who works for a public school system.

"It's kind of hard to do a job that you went to school for that you love, but you can't provide a living for your family so it would impact the children by just giving them more great teachers," said Sherise Barfield, who works with Foundation Builders Academy, a childcare development center in Rocky Mount which has three state-funded Pre-K classrooms.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.