This story originally published online at NC Policy Watch.

In a dramatic ruling issued just days before midterm elections, the North Carolina Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling and ordered the transfer of millions of dollars to pay for a school improvement plan designed to provide the state’s school children with the sound basic education guaranteed under the state constitution

The court’s Democratic majority agreed to send the case back to the trial court to recalculate how much money should be transferred from state coffers to pay for the second and third years of what is commonly known as the comprehensive remedial plan.

“Once those calculations have been made, we instruct the trial court to order those State officials to transfer those funds to the specified State agencies,” Supreme Court Justice Robin E. Hudson wrote in the majority opinion.

The eight-year comprehensive remedial plan calls for more than $5.6 billion in public education spending by 2028. Spending on the second and third years of the plan was $1.75 billion before lawmakers approved the recent state budget that partially funded the plan.

State budget officials have estimated that nearly $800 million in the comprehensive plan is unfunded for year two and three.

Superior Court Judge David Lee ordered the state to transfer the $1.75 million last November to fund two years of the school improvement plan developed by education consultant WestEd. However, a state Court of Appeals panel ruled that Lee didn’t have the authority to require the state to spend the money on the plan.

Superior Court Judge Michael Robinson replace lee as the trial judge in March. Robinson ruled that the state must spend $785 million to fully fund the first two years of the comprehensive remedial plan. But Robinson said state officials should not be forced to hand over the money for the plan.

Gov. Roy Cooper said in a statement that the state has a constitutional duty to ensure every child has access to a sound basic education.

“As the NC Supreme Court has affirmed today, we must do more for our students all across North Carolina,” Cooper said.

House Democratic Leader Robert Reives also applauded the ruling.

“For years, our state has not lived up to the constitutional requirement to fund a sound, basic education for our children. The Court found that after decades of inaction, now is the time for North Carolina to uphold our obligation to provide that education. It is unfortunate that the Courts have had to compel the Legislature to do what we should have done a long time ago.”

The state Supreme Court is made up of four Democrats and three Republicans. The political makeup of the Court could change after the Nov. 8 election. The Court’s 4-3 decision was made along party lines with Democrats in the majority and Republicans dissenting.

N.C. Justice Center Director Rick Glazier called the ruling the most important civil rights decision issued by the state Supreme Court in decades. Glazier said the decision will benefit generations of school children.

“Finally, after decades of prolonged litigation, the fundamental constitutional right of the children of North Carolina to receive a sound basic education and the vital resources necessary to give that right meaning is given life, enshrined and ensured,” Glazier said.

The state’s Republican leadership has long held that the court does not have the authority to order the legislature to pay for the comprehensive plan.

“The people of North Carolina through their elected legislators, not an unelected county-level trial judge, decide how to spend tax dollars,” Senate leader Phil Berger said last December. “Rather than accepting responsibility for lagging achievement and outright failure, the Leandro parties insist that the pathway to student improvement is always the simple application of more money.”

In the dissenting opinion, Justice Phil Berger Jr., the Senate leader’s son, called the decision an “astonishing step” that “permits the judiciary to ordain itself as super-legislators.”

This action is contrary to our system of government, destructive of separation of powers, and the very definition of tyranny as understood by our Founding Fathers,” Berger wrote.

Berger was joined by Chief Justice Paul Newby and Justice Tamara Barringer in the dissenting opinion.

The Leandro case began nearly three decades ago when school districts in five low-wealth counties sued the state, claiming that children were not receiving the same level of educational opportunities as students in wealthier counties. School districts in Cumberland, Hoke, Robeson, and Vance counties joined Halifax County in the lawsuit.

In 1997, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling, later reconfirmed in 2004, in which it held that every child has a right to a “sound basic education” that includes competent and well-trained teachers and principals and equitable access to resources.

Click here to read the ruling and the dissent.

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