Going on 30 years, an education funding dispute returns to the North Carolina Supreme Court

Feb 21, 2024, 10:04 PM

FILE - N.C. Association of Educators Vice President Bryan Proffitt speaks during a news conference ...

FILE - N.C. Association of Educators Vice President Bryan Proffitt speaks during a news conference held by Every Child NC in Raleigh, N.C., Aug. 31, 2022. The press conference was held to urge the N.C. Supreme Court to order the state to fund the Leandro plan. The North Carolina Supreme Court scheduled oral arguments Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024, in an education funding case barely a year after a majority of justices — all Democrats — ruled on whether a trial judge could move taxpayer money to address schooling inequities statewide without the express approval of legislators. The court now has a Republican majority that decided to take up again a portion of the case known as “Leandro.” (Ethan Hyman/The News & Observer via AP, File)

(Ethan Hyman/The News & Observer via AP, File)

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — 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.

United States News

Associated Press

Report urges fixes to online child exploitation CyberTipline before AI makes it worse

A tipline set up 26 years ago to combat online child exploitation has not lived up to its potential and needs technological and other improvements to help law enforcement go after abusers and rescue victims, a new report from the Stanford Internet Observatory has found. The fixes to what the researchers describe as an “enormously […]

24 minutes ago

Associated Press

The Latest | Trump returning to court for opening statements in his historic hush money trial

NEW YORK (AP) — Opening statements in Donald Trump’s historic hush money trial are set to begin Monday morning, setting the stage for weeks of unsavory and salacious testimony about the former president’s personal life and placing his legal troubles at the center of his closely contested campaign against President Joe Biden. A panel of […]

3 hours ago

Associated Press

Kevin Bacon dances back to “Footloose” high school

PAYSON, Utah (AP) — Actor Kevin Bacon on Saturday returned to the Utah high school where the cult classic movie “Footloose” was filmed more than 40 years. Bacon danced his way to a stage on a Payson High School athletic field Saturday to greet students before what likely was the final prom held at the […]

16 hours ago

Associated Press

Arkansas teen held on murder charge after fatal shooting outside party after high school prom

HELENA-WEST HELENA, Ark. (AP) — An Arkansas teen is in custody on a first-degree murder charge in connection with the fatal shooting of a high school senior outside a party early Sunday following a high school prom. Donterious Stephens, 19, of Helena, turned himself in to authorities Sunday afternoon in the shooting death of Lorenzo […]

16 hours ago

Associated Press

Terry Anderson, AP reporter held captive for years, has died

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Terry Anderson, the globe-trotting Associated Press correspondent who became one of America’s longest-held hostages after he was snatched from a street in war-torn Lebanon in 1985 and held for nearly seven years, has died at 76. Anderson, who chronicled his abduction and torturous imprisonment by Islamic militants in his best-selling 1993 […]

16 hours ago

Associated Press

Suspect in killing of Idaho sheriff’s deputy fatally shot by police, authorities say

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — An Idaho sheriff’s deputy died after being shot by a driver during a traffic stop, and a man believed to be the shooting suspect was later fatally shot by police, authorities said Sunday. Deputy Tobin Bolter was shot as he approached the driver’s window at about 9 p.m. Saturday in Boise, […]

17 hours ago

Sponsored Articles



Here are 5 things Arizona residents need to know about their HVAC system

It's warming back up in the Valley, which means it's time to think about your air conditioning system's preparedness for summer.


Collins Comfort Masters

Here’s 1 way to ensure your family is drinking safe water

Water is maybe one of the most important resources in our lives, and especially if you have kids, you want them to have access to safe water.


Collins Comfort Masters

Avoid a potential emergency and get your home’s heating and furnace safety checked

With the weather getting colder throughout the Valley, the best time to make sure your heating is all up to date is now. 

Going on 30 years, an education funding dispute returns to the North Carolina Supreme Court