Background/Facts of the Case:
Hoke County Board of Education v. The State of North Carolina addresses the constitutional right of school children in North Carolina to have the opportunity to receive a “sound basic education” and whether the judicial branch has the jurisdiction to order a transfer of funds. This case has a long history.
In 1994, a group of students and families from five rural school districts in North Carolina sued the State and the State Board of Education for a lack of adequate educational opportunities and violation of the North Carolina Constitution, which provides the right to a “sound basic education.” They argued that an unconstitutional and unfair funding system contributed to this failure to provide students from the poorest districts with equitable educational opportunities. In 1997, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in Leandro I that the Constitution establishes the right not just to education, but to have qualitatively adequate educational opportunities. The Court then remanded it back to the trial court to assess whether the State was actually providing a sound and basic education to all students.
Between 2000 and 2002, the trial court published factual evidence and legal findings to analyze whether the State was upholding its duty under Leandro I. The Court ultimately found that “there are children at-risk of educational failure who are not being provided the equal opportunity to obtain a sound basic education.” Consequently, in 2004, the Supreme Court affirmed this main finding in Leandro II.
From 2004-2018, the trial court entered its remedial phase and heard arguments about different state efforts to comply with the previous Leandro rulings. A report by the independent, non-party consultant, WestEd, concluded that “the state is further away from meeting its constitutional obligation to provide every child with the opportunity for a sound basic education than it was when the Supreme Court of North Carolina issued the Leandro decision more than 20 years ago.” The trial court ordered the Defendants to create a comprehensive remedial plan (CRP) that could be fully implemented by 2028. After failing to meet year 1 CRP goals and with the knowledge that the State has the money available to fund years 2 and 3 of the program, the trial court ordered in November of 2021 that $1.7 billion be transferred from the General Funds to state agencies and actors to implement the CRP. One week later, the State enacted the Budget Act that outlines the modifications in the General Fund. However, later in the month, the Court of Appeals issued a writ of prohibition, allowing the Controller not to be required to comply with the trials court’s order.
In April of 2022, the trial court stated that the total underfunding for year 2 and 3 combined was estimated to be around $785 million. However, given the writ of prohibition, the trial court concluded that the April 2022 Order should not direct state officials to actually transfer any money, but should determine that the State has failed to comply with the previous order to fully fund year 2 and 3.
In Hoke County Board of Education vs. The State of North Carolina, the NC Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the trial court’s November 2021 Order in a 4-3 decision . It argued that the transfer order is an equitable remedy to address the continuous constitutional violations while also limiting encroachment upon the legislative branch. The Supreme Court stated that it could invoke its inherent power to address constitutional violations when the actions or inactions of a coequal branch of government violates these rights. This includes directing state actors to transfer funds.
The Supreme Court also reversed the trial court’s April 2022 Order on the grounds that the calculations of underfunding are mooted by the State’s enactment of the 2022 Budget Act. The Court also reversed the trial court’s conclusion that it lacked the power and authority to direct state actors to transfer funds under the writ of prohibition. The Court argued that due to the case’s extraordinary circumstances, the trial court is empowered to do so. The Court ordered the trial court to do three things: 1) recalculate the amount of underfunding for years 2 and 3 in light of the 2022 Budget Act, 2) reinstate the transfer directive in the November 2021 Order, and 3) retain jurisdiction over the case to monitor compliance with the CRP.
The NC Supreme Court reaffirmed the inherent importance of the right to the opportunity to a sound basic education that is a part of the Constitution and historically recognized in Leandro I and II. Constitutional violations require a fair remedy, and the Court has this responsibility as the ultimate interpreter of the Constitution to provide and protect these rights. This ruling could have far reaching benefits for generations of children in the state. However, the recent shift in the partisan makeup of the Supreme Court from a Democrat to Republican majority opens the possibility and opportunity for this decision to be overturned.
Katie Heath is from Bloomfield Hills, MI, studying Public Policy, Economics, and Education