Fate of public education rests with state's high court. It must not let our kids down

Published February 22, 2024

By Capitol Broadcasting Company

“Beware. When they say it isn’t about the money, it’s about the money.” goes the expression often uttered in politics and government circles.

Today North Carolina legislative leaders, including Sen. Phil Berger Sr., will argue before the state Supreme Court that includes Berger’s son, that it is all about the money when it comes to fulfilling the state Constitution’s guarantee that every child has access to a quality education.

The truth is in this case it’s not about the money. But it is about specifically what needs to be done – what programs, personnel and materials are necessary to assure all children -- regardless of who their parents are, the school district they live in or where it is in North Carolina -- will receive a quality education at their public schools.

The court needs to honor and hold to decades of precedent and reinforce the order to implement the too-long-delayed Comprehensive Remedial Plan to assure every child has access to a quality education. It is a properly developed and judicially sound resolution developed over 30 years of litigation and review. It will take some contorted legal gymnastics to reverse course now.

There is no question that North Carolina has failed to meet its constitutional obligation as regards providing children access to a quality education. Through more than a quarter-century of extended and extensive judicially overseen investigation and examination because of a lawsuit brought 30 years ago, a consensus was reached between the plaintiffs and defendants.

The plaintiffs were parents, students, economically disadvantaged small and rural school districts along with more wealthy, urban districts dealing with the burdens of special needs of poor and minority students.

The defendants were the state of North Carolina and the State Board of Education.

In 2004, the same high court stressed it wasn’t just the children in the school district named in the initial complaint entitled access to a sound basic education – but that it was a right to be delivered to ALL North Carolina school children.

In 2017 the state and the plaintiffs, under the court’s direction, agreed to have independent consultants review the public education status in the state and come up with recommendations that would assure all children access to a quality education. West Ed, working with N.C. State University’s Friday Institute for Education Innovation and other education experts came up with the “Sound Basic Education For All: An Action Plan for North Carolina.” The key elements included: Attracting, preparing, supporting and retaining education leaders; Recruiting and retaining well-prepared teachers in all classrooms; developing and supporting teachers; ensuring all children have access to well-prepared educators; providing an environment for teaching and learning that supports students health and well-being along with encouraging teacher retention; providing effective measures of student achievement for accountability and compliance with federal law.

Also, at the conclusion, were estimates of the costs to deliver the comprehensive remedial program.

In November 2022, once again, the N.C. Supreme Court upheld the judicial order that the state MUST implement the Comprehensive Remedial Plan in the face of legislative leaders’ efforts to ignore it.

The court bluntly declared: “This Court has long recognized that our Constitution empowers the judicial branch with inherent authority to address constitutional violations through equitable remedies. For twenty-five years, the judiciary has deferred to the executive and legislative branches to implement a comprehensive solution to this ongoing constitutional violation. Today, that deference expires. If this Court is to fulfill its own constitutional obligations, it can no longer patiently wait for the day, year, or decade when the State gets around to acting on its constitutional duty ‘to guard and maintain’ the constitutional rights of North Carolina schoolchildren.”

But that was then. Just a few weeks later after new justices joined the court -- including the son the state’s most powerful Republican – legislative leaders filed to block implementation of the plan.

Today, the state Supreme Court will hear arguments from legislators claiming the matter isn’t about quality education – but whether courts can order the legislature to spend $700 million in a specific way.

The point of the action isn’t about money – the legislature has the money. Legislative leaders have directed spending nearly that much in unaccountable taxpayer funds to support private schools in the form of vouchers.

It is about support – as our state Constitution requires – for the public schools and meeting the promise to North Carolina’s children.

It is not about partisan or familial allegiances.

The Supreme Court needs to stand for the future of the state and a quality education in every classroom and school.

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