For the past dozen years, the General Assembly of North Carolina has been relentless in its efforts to crush the state’s public schools and their teachers. This period began with the ascendancy of the Tea Party in what was once the most progressive state in the South. Parents, students, and teachers got good news from the State Supreme Court on November 4. The following description of the decision was written by the Center for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University.

NORTH CAROLINA SUPREME COURT ISSUES BLOCKBUSTER SCHOOL-FUNDING DECISION

On November 4th, in a stunning 227-page decision, the North Carolina Supreme Court ordered the state controller and other state officials to transfer approximately $800 million from state budget reserves to the state educational budgets to fund a comprehensive compliance plan in the long-pending Leandro litigation.  The decision comes after the state legislature refused to appropriate the full amount required to implement the second and third years of the eight-year phase-in of the compliance plan.

The 1997 Leandro case affirmed NC students’ constitutional right to the opportunity for a sound basic education and recognized the duty of the state government to provide adequate funding to guarantee that right to all students. 

In its 4-2 decision on Friday, the state supreme court refused to permit further delay in fully vindicating the state students’ constitutional right. It remanded the case to the trial court to recalculate the exact amount of funds required for the transfer and ordered that the trial court to retain jurisdiction to ensure that the plan is fully implemented in the years to come.

The court stated the significance of the case in potent language:

A quarter-century ago, this Court recognized that the North Carolina Constitution vests in all children of this state the right to the opportunity to receive a sound basic education and that it is the constitutional duty of the State to uphold that right. Leandro v. State , 346 N.C. 336, 345 (1997). … In 2004, we affirmed the trial court’s determination “that the State had failed in its constitutional duty to provide certain students with the opportunity to attain a sound basic education,” and that “the State must act to correct those deficiencies.”… At that still-early stage of the litigation, this Court deferred to the legislative and executive branches to craft and implement a remedy to this failure. 

In the eighteen years since, despite some steps forward and back, the foundational basis for the ruling of Leandro … has remained unchanged: today, as in 2004, far too many North Carolina schoolchildren … are not afforded their constitutional right to the opportunity to a sound basic education. …

Now, this Court must determine whether [the state’s constitutional] duty is a binding obligation or an unenforceable suggestion. We hold the former: the State may not indefinitely violate the constitutional rights of North Carolina schoolchildren without consequence. Our Constitution is the supreme law of the land; it is not optional. In exercising its powers under the Appropriations Clause, the General Assembly must also comply with its duties under the Education Provisions. 

Rejecting the legislature’s separation of powers objections, the court held:

[W]hen inaction by those exercising legislative authority threatens fiscally to undermine the integrity of the judiciary, a court may invoke its inherent power to do what is reasonably necessary for the orderly and efficient administration of justice.”… Although “Article V prohibits the judiciary from taking public monies without statutory authorization [,]” when the exercise of remedial power “necessarily includes safeguarding the constitutional rights of the parties [,] … the court has the inherent authority to direct local authorities to perform that duty. …

For our Constitution to retain its integrity and legitimacy, the fundamental rights enshrined therein must be “guarded and maintained.” When other branches indefinitely abdicate this constitutional obligation, the judiciary must fill the void.

This forceful order reminds us that, at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court seems bent on abolishing or reducing important constitutional guarantees, state courts can play a critical role in upholding and fully enforcing important constitutional rights.

Note: The Center for Educational Equity helped draft the brief, amicus curiae, of the “Professors and Long-Time Practitioners of Constitutional and Educational Law” that was submitted in support of the plaintiffs’ position on this appeal.