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A Court Ordered Billions for Education. Why Schools Might Not Get It Now

Republican justices on North Carolina’s highest court signaled on Thursday that they’re open to revising a court order made less than two years ago requiring that the state spend billions more dollars on K-12 schools.

It’s the latest twist in a three-decade-old attempt by North Carolina school districts to compel the state to invest more funding to minimize education inequities in the state’s public schools. And it’s an example of how public schools can win a victory in court, only to face fresh complications in the quest for more resources.

Democrats controlled the seven-member court in November 2022 when it ruled in favor of injecting billions of additional dollars into K-12 schools to help address persistent inequities. The ruling stemmed from a 1994 lawsuit accusing the state of failing to provide a “sound, basic education” for all students, as North Carolina’s constitution guarantees.

But Republican lawmakers who control both chambers of the state legislature refused, arguing the court lacked the authority to make such an order and direct lawmakers to appropriate more funding. They appealed the ruling, and the state supreme court, now with a Republican majority, agreed to hear the case again.

Attorneys for those lawmakers pressed that case during an 85-minute state supreme court hearing of oral arguments on Thursday, while education advocacy groups rallied on the steps of the state capitol building.

Matthew Tilley, an attorney representing Republican leaders in the state’s two legislative chambers, argued that the court does not have the authority to order a statewide financial remedy for schools based on claims primarily centered around one district. The case of Leandro v. State of North Carolina was originally filed on behalf of five districts, and much of the case drew on evidence from the Hoke County district, which the case’s namesake attended.

“The case is about whether the trial court, when presented with only district-specific claims, had jurisdiction to issue sweeping statewide orders that required a comprehensive remedial plan…for all 115 districts in the state, effectively removing those districts from the democratic process,” Tilley said.

Judges spent most of the hearing grilling lawyers for both sides on technical and legal questions, including whether districts should be held liable for low-quality education rather than the state, and whether an order for additional funding statewide would preclude students from raising further concerns in court about the state of their schools in the future.

“I’m just concerned that there are students who are out there saying, ‘Wait a minute, that’s not fair that the government is deciding this for me. I never got to come to court and say, here’s how you fix my school,’” said Justice Richard Dietz, a Republican.

Judge Trey Allen, a Republican, also zeroed in on the absence of current K-12 students as plaintiffs in the case. “Doesn’t that mean we have no parties left in the case who are entitled to relief?” he asked.

Justices appear to be looking for ways to undermine the 2022 ruling from the North Carolina supreme court, if not outright overturn it, an expert in education law told reporters after Thursday’s hearing on the three-decade-old Leandro case.

The court may demand a new trial with current students demonstrating harms they’re experiencing in a wide swath of the state’s public schools, rather than allowing the current set of school district plaintiffs to remain at the center of the case, said David Hinojosa, director of the Educational Opportunities Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Alternatively, justices could nix the original ruling altogether. But “that seemed the death knell that not many justices were willing to sign off on today during the argument,” said Hinojosa, who’s currently representing the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district and local NAACP chapter in the Leandro case.

The court’s rehearing of the case is unusual and controversial

The partisan balance of the North Carolina Supreme Court shifted in November 2022, when Republicans picked up two seats to secure a 5-2 majority. Four months later, the court announced it would rehear the Leandro case.

The decision angered advocates who believe it was already a settled issue.

“There’s an attempt to overcomplicate things to distract from the simple fact that our constitution says you have to fund decent schools, but not only has the legislature not done it, they don’t even have an alternative plan to maybe do so in the future,” said Kris Nordstrom, senior policy analyst with the Education & Law Project at the nonprofit North Carolina Justice Center.

News of Thursday’s hearing also prompted calls for Justice Phil Berger Jr., to recuse himself from considering the case because his father, Phil Berger, serves as president of the state senate. The court voted 4-2 in favor of allowing Berger to remain involved.

In the meantime, the court has already reversed several other decisions from the era when Democrats held the majority, including overturning an order that allowed state courts to intervene in gerrymandering cases and reviving a voter ID law previously deemed racially discriminatory.

Advocates for maintaining the ruling said during Thursday’s hearing that asserting the court can’t order payments when they’re justified would set a dangerous precedent.

“It really is quite dangerous for our legal system that the state could say, ‘We’re not going to pay just compensation for taking your private property, we’re not going to refund an unconstitutional tax,’” said Ryan Park, the state’s solicitor general, representing the Democrat-led executive branch. “I don’t think anyone wants to live in that system.”

State lawsuits over school funding are long and winding

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that local funding disparities between school districts do not violate the U.S. Constitution. In the half-century since, lawsuits like the Leandro case have challenged nearly every state to adhere to their individual constitutions, most of which include rights to education for all children.

Many of those cases—in states like New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Washington—have resulted in court mandates for increasing funding, and other school finance reforms.

School funding has been a contested legal issue in North Carolina since 1994, when high school student Robb Leandro served as the lead plaintiff on a lawsuit alleging the state was falling short of its constitutional duty to provide an equal education to all students. Leandro was in 9th grade at the time; he’s now in his mid-40s.

Since then, the case has followed a winding path through the courts, with the state supreme court and numerous lower courts validating the claims that the state owes significantly more money to K-12 schools.

North Carolina isn’t the only state currently grappling with legal obligations around school funding:

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