After decades of debate over the adequacy and funding of North Carolina’s public school system, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in November that hundreds of millions of dollars must be allocated to public schools.
The decision in Hoke County Board of Education v. State of North Carolina is the latest development to an adjacent case that was decided in 1997, Leandro v. State of North Carolina, also known as "Leandro I."
Leandro I was filed in 1994 when parents argued that students in five low-wealth counties in the state did not have access to an adequate education. The ruling by the N.C. Supreme Court recognized the state constitutional right for every student to have access to a “sound basic education.”
In a decision in a subsequent case in 2004 — the first Leandro II — the N.C. Supreme Court ruled the State is responsible for staffing each classroom with a competent teacher, hiring a competent principal for every school and providing adequate resources to ensure an equitable learning environment.
Debra Dowless, the superintendent of Hoke County Schools, said the prolonged Leandro decision has impacted the availability of services provided to Hoke County students.
"Unfortunately, the students who were sitting in the classrooms when this case was first filed are now grown adults who may not have had access to all of the educational opportunities and resources they deserved," Dowless said in an email.
The five low-wealth counties, Hoke, Halifax, Robeson, Vance and Cumberland, that filed the lawsuit with parents in 1994 argued that their districts did not have the funds to support a sound basic education, even though those counties were taxing residents at higher-than-average rates.
“If you don’t have funds, there are certain things you really can’t offer your children,” Tyus S. Few, chair of the Halifax County Schools Board of Education in Halifax County, said.
The funding, which will be allocated soon, will adhere to the Comprehensive Remedial Plan, also called the Leandro Plan, which is an eight-year roadmap for education policy in North Carolina.
This plan is based on a 2018 court-ordered report by WestEd, an independent educational consultant based in California. The report issued recommendations to meet the requirements ruled necessary in Leandro II.
The subsequent Leandro Plan, which was created by school boards and the State, aims to address these requirements.
Rob Schofield, the editor and director of NC Policy Watch, said the plan is a step toward compliance with the Constitution, which he said is a “remarkable accomplishment” after decades of litigation.
“We could actually get to a point where all of our schools in the state would have a high-quality principal and adequate teachers and adequate facilities — all of the things you need to have a stab at offering children a sound basic education,” Schofield said.
Few said Halifax County has received funds from the state to build a new middle school.
He said the funds appropriated from the decision will go toward school facilities as well as toward supporting existing students.
Few also said that he is not yet sure how much money the county will receive and that the county is still working on a plan for exactly how the money will be used.
In November 2021, Judge David Lee ordered the General Assembly to transfer $1.7 billion to fund years two and three of the Leandro Plan. The order was appealed to the state court of appeals later that year.
In earlier versions of the case, the court held that the legislative and executive branches were responsible for upholding the constitutional duty to provide a sound basic education to students.
However, the majority opinion of the most recent ruling states that "the State has proven — for an entire generation — either unable or unwilling to fulfill its constitutional duty."
Based on this ruling, a trial court has been ordered to calculate the exact funds for the Leandro Plan. The decision takes funding power for the Leandro Plan out of the hands of the legislature and gives it to the courts.
Based on the State's violation of the constitution, the N.C. Supreme Court upheld the trial court’s ruling to order a transfer of funds for the Leandro Plan.
The dissenting opinion said the power to transfer funds lies exclusively with the legislature.
“The legislature is responsible for funding, in large part, the majority of public schools,” Robert Luebke, director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation, said. “They also direct, in a general sense, the policies that govern schools, so it’s a separation of powers issue.”
Schofield said the allocation of funds may play out in a complicated, challenging way because the court decision does not clearly spell out how to compel another branch of government to act.
“The decision has been made, but making sure that it all happens and that the money gets to children and is put to good use as soon as possible is really critical,” Lauren Fox, the senior director of policy and research at the Public School Forum of North Carolina, said.
Fox said a strong public education system has both long and short-term societal benefits.
“Investing in public education, for example, pays off in economic outcomes for society as a whole,” she said. “We see increases in earning and spending and strengthening the economy, lower rates of crime, lower poverty rates. Those are just a few examples.”
Short-term benefits of public school funding include encouraging people to live in those school districts, Fox said.
According to Public Schools First NC, about 1.5 million students are enrolled in public schools in North Carolina.
“If we don’t fund public education, not only do we endanger our economy and well-being of those young people who will be the adults of tomorrow,” Schofield said. “We endanger our democracy.”
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