by Scott Mooneyham
For everyone involved, maybe their public proclamation should have been, “We didn’t lose! We didn’t lose! We didn’t lose!”
Lawyers and politicians aren’t in the business of providing that kind of lukewarm response, though.
They certainly weren’t going to start when the North Carolina Supreme Court issued its latest ruling in the long-running, court-mediated dispute over educational funding in North Carolina known as Leandro.
So, state Senate leader Phil Berger called the decision “a clear affirmation of the General Assembly’s central role in shaping education policy, and the size and scope of North Carolina’s pre-K program.”
State House Speaker Thom Tillis said the ruling “reinforces my own belief that we have taken seriously our constitutional duty to meticulously manage the resources of this state so that every child in North Carolina has an opportunity to obtain a sound basic education.”
Melanie Dubis, one of the lawyers who filed the challenge of legislative-imposed cuts, characterized the decision as “yet another unanimous ruling that those mandates that every child, including prospective enrollees, is entitled to the opportunity for a sound basic education…”
That’s quite the verbiage to describe a six-page court ruling that could be boiled down to a single word: moot.
The key sentence in the ruling reads, “We express no opinion on the legislation now in effect because questions of its constitutionality are not before us.”
At issue in the case was whether the General Assembly, in 2011, violated earlier court mandates in the Leandro school funding case by putting a cap on the number of children served in the state’s pre-kindergarten program and by requiring some parents to make co-payments to enroll their children.
The Supreme Court, in its original Leandro ruling, found that the state had to meet certain obligations to provide all students with an opportunity for a “sound, basic education.
Part of the state’s response in complying with the ruling was to create a pre-kindergarten program for four-year olds at risk of academic failure, then called More-at Four.
When state lawmakers limited the program in 2011, a court challenge quickly followed, and lower courts agreed that the changes put the state out of compliance with the earlier ruling.
What did the legislature do? A year later, it dropped the co-payments, changed some language and mitigated the cuts.
That allowed the Supreme Court justices to sidestep the extent of the General Assembly’s authority when it comes to changing the program, with the court saying that the original controversy was no longer in controversy.
Not surprisingly, legislative leaders see budgeting decisions as the legislature’s bailiwick; the education advocates who have pursued the low-wealth school funding case say that is not so when the decisions are a part of a court-mandated remedy.
Neither of them got much satisfaction out of the latest from the court.
Just don’t expect them to say that.
—Scott Mooneyham covers the state Legislature for the Capitol Press Association.