Law & Courts

N.C. High Court Rules State Must Spend More on Schools

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — August 11, 2004 3 min read

The North Carolina Supreme Court has ruled that the state is not meeting its constitutional duty to provide a sound basic education for students in needy districts, affirming a lower-court decision in the state’s 10-year-old school finance lawsuit.

State leaders may be hard-pressed to remedy the situation, however. The July 30 decision came a week after the North Carolina legislature adjourned without approving the $22 million that the state board of education had requested to pay for a court-approved plan to help low-wealth districts.

That failure angered Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard E. Manning Jr., who called an emergency hearing on July 22 to press education officials on how they would meet the demands of his 2002 ruling in the case.

With the state facing a potential showdown with Judge Manning, Gov. Michael F. Easley, a Democrat, promised to come up with $12 million to jump-start the effort, in turn satisfying the judge for the time being. The developments are the latest in the case, which was first addressed by the supreme court in 1997 after the state sought to dismiss it. (“N.C. Court Targets Adequacy in Equity Ruling,” Aug. 6, 1997.)

‘We Win by Losing’

Despite the state’s defeat in the high court, state education officials last week praised the decision, while expressing frustration over the legislature’s failure to act.

“I personally believe we win by losing. ... It’s a good decision for kids,” said Michael E. Ward, who will step down as state schools chief at the end of this month. “The state needs to accept this decision, and some folks who haven’t gotten serious about vulnerable kids and struggling districts, particularly our legislature, need to step up.”

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. It then ended up in Judge Manning’s court. His 2002 ruling required the state to spend more to help school systems with high teacher turnover, high proportions of students living in poverty, and low student achievement. (“Do More for Needy Students, N.C. Court Orders,” April 10, 2002.)

Although state officials appealed the ruling to the supreme court, they also began planning ways to provide more support to the low-wealth districts.

The state board’s $22 million plan won praise from Judge Manning. The money was to be used to improve the recruitment and retention of qualified teachers and to deliver an effective instructional program.

The judge had also ordered the state to provide free prekindergarten to all of the state’s disadvantaged 4-year-olds, but the supreme court overturned that part of his ruling.

Two years ago, Gov. Easley signed an executive order that called for $54 million to pay for his prekindergarten program in response to Judge Manning’s criticism over what he said was the state’s inadequate effort to address his demands.

Observers said the supreme court’s decision last month would leave the legislature little choice but to allocate more money for disadvantaged schools when it returns in January. The state’s updated plan for complying with the lower court decision is expected to cost about $220 million in coming years.

“Judge Manning is really impatient, and it’s clear that he is looking for action,” said John N. Dornan, the executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a nonpartisan research group in Raleigh.

Other Options

Some lawmakers have suggested that other priorities, such as passing a $50 million class-size-reduction initiative, were more pressing.

“The feeling in the legislature was that most people supported [the money for disadvantaged districts], but we were having a very tight budget year ... and some folks didn’t see it as one of the priorities,” said Rep. Douglas Y. Yongue, a Democrat and one of the plaintiffs in the case, Hoke County Board of Education v. State of North Carolina.

Mr. Yongue, the chairman of the House education appropriations committee, said the supreme court ruling would increase the legislature’s sense of urgency on the matter.

The state board was scheduled to discuss the issue last week and how it would use the $12 million downpayment, and then report back to the court.

Mr. Ward said the state would have to scale back its original plan by helping 11 needy districts instead of the 16 that state officials had originally intended.

Judge Manning expects to hold more hearings with state officials to evaluate the plan.

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