Law & Courts

N.C. Cites Progress in Satisfying Equity Lawsuit

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — April 14, 2004 2 min read
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Members of the North Carolina state board of education say they are already on track in complying with a judge’s finding that more money and other resources must be provided to help low-wealth districts offer a high-quality education to all students.

Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard E. Manning Jr. sent a letter to board Chairman Howard N. Lee and state schools chief Michael E. Ward on March 27 in response to a state report outlining the progress North Carolina has made in meeting the court’s demands in the 10-year-old school finance case. The judge’s directive was a departure from his previous ruling, which did not call for additional funding.

Two days later, the state board concluded that its recent request for some $22 million in the state’s supplemental budget would help poorer districts hire and provide professional development for well-qualified teachers, as the court ordered.

“We firmly believe we are heading in the right direction and that we must continue to aggressively build on the strategies we have already implemented,” Mr. Lee said, according to a summary of the board’s closed-session discussion of the issue.

Given the state’s tight budget, however, it is unclear whether the legislature will approve the request when it convenes in May, Mr. Lee said.

The lawsuit, which was brought by five of the state’s poorest rural districts in 1994, charged that North Carolina was not providing adequate educational resources for disadvantaged children. One plaintiff, Hoke County, was selected as the representative district to present the case at trial.

Appeal Pending

In April 2002, Judge Manning directed the state to provide prekindergarten classes for 4- year-olds considered at risk of academic failure and to do more to ensure that all students had competent teachers and administrators.

In its most recent report to the court, the state said it was addressing the judge’s demands through a plan to help low-wealth districts reduce teacher turnover, offer content-area professional development, and attract high-caliber teachers to schools that have the most difficulty doing so.

The judge’s response to the report included for the first time a suggestion that additional funding for the districts would be required to meet the court’s demands.

The previous ruling, in fact, concluded that the education budget was adequate and that money should be diverted from other programs, such as extracurricular activities and programs for gifted students. (“Do More for Needy Students, N.C. Court Orders,” April 10, 2002.)

Some observers praised the judge’s most recent determination.

“I’m very encouraged by this, because, for the first time in a decade, there has been recognition that it will take additional resources to make some of the changes the judge says need to be made,” said John Dornan, the executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina.

Meanwhile, state leaders are awaiting a decision on their appeal of Judge Manning’s April 2002 ruling.

While state officials argued that they had instituted a preschool program and were in the process of making the other required changes, they questioned whether such services are required under the state constitution.

The appeal also questions the use of test results as the measure for determining whether a student has received the requisite education.

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