Long-running North Carolina education case will return before the state Supreme Court in February

Published 11:10 am Saturday, December 30, 2023

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More arguments in education funding litigation that goes back nearly 30 years are scheduled for early next year at the North Carolina Supreme Court.

The state’s highest court is revisiting the case originally known as “Leandro” with oral arguments it has now set for Feb. 22.

That will be less than 16 months after a majority of justices — then all of the court’s registered Democrats — ruled a trial judge could order taxpayer dollars be transferred without the General Assembly’s express approval from government coffers to state agencies to carry out a plan to address longstanding education inequities.

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Since the 4-3 opinion in November 2022, the court has flipped to a 5-2 GOP majority.

Republican justices agreed in October to hear an appeal by Republican legislative leaders as to whether Judge James Ammons had the authority last spring to enter an order declaring that the state owed $678 million to fulfill two years of the eight-year plan. The justices are expected to examine whether the judge could rule about public education statewide.

Republican legislative leaders are opposed to the November 2022 ruling and argue state funds can only be allocated with General Assembly approval.

They also said in court filings this year that there was never a legal determination made that school districts statewide had failed to live up to the requirement affirmed by the Supreme Court in rulings in 1997 and 2004 that the state constitution directs all children must receive the “opportunity to receive a sound basic education.”

Associate Justice Anita Earls, a Democrat, wrote in October that the matter should not be revisited. She said an earlier trial judge managing the case did find a statewide constitutional violation of education inequities, and so a statewide remedy was needed.

Lawyers representing several school districts in poor counties also argued in court filings that the case was settled in November 2022 and should not be reheard.

The case began in 1994, when several school districts and families of children — one whose last name was Leandro — sued the state over alleged state law and constitutional violations involving education.