State to seek schools ruling: Reforms order won’t be delayed

State leaders will ask the N.C. Supreme Court to review the constitutionality of a lower court order for sweeping improvements to North Carolina schools, but they will not try to block the order while they appeal it.

The decision by Gov. Mike Easley and Attorney General Roy Cooper means the state will work with Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr. on improving schools while other constitutional questions about the school-finance case are being decided by the higher court.

"Put simply, I do not want to see this litigation dragged out for several more years," Easley said Thursday in a letter to Cooper. "That would create much uncertainty and hamper our efforts for greater educational progress."

Manning ruled last month that the state must improve teacher quality and school resources and take other steps to improve education for low-income children at risk of failing academically.

Cooper and Easley said the state would seek an expedited appeal to the N.C. Supreme Court, bypassing the N.C. Court of Appeals, but would not request a stay of Manning’s ruling.

Those involved in the 8-year-old case were generally delighted to hear the news.

"This is very positive. In many ways it is remarkable," said Gerry Hancock, a lobbyist for about 70 poorer school districts that have followed the finance case closely. "The legal debate is not over, but this is definitely progress."

Bob Spearman, an attorney for a group of poor school systems that sued the state in 1994, said, "From the general tenor of it, it looks like the governor wants to be on our side of the case. We’re happy to have him."

Easley noted that parts of Manning’s order called for programs the governor also has pushed, including pre-kindergarten programs and smaller classes. But he and Cooper said it was important to have the Supreme Court decide whether Manning’s remedies are constitutional.

"Education leaders will know definitely and finally from the state’s highest court what they must do," Cooper said in a written statement issued Thursday. "Without a definite ruling from the Supreme Court, other education lawsuits could be decided differently, which would leave us in a state of confusion."

The heart of the lawsuit involves a dispute between the state and local districts about the way in which North Carolina pays for its public education system.

For much of the past eight years, the local districts have argued that state funding formulas do not give them the ability to adequately educate children as required by state laws and the state constitution. State officials have maintained that sufficient money is provided and local school districts are ultimately responsible if students fail academically.

Supreme Court of the state of North Carolina issued a landmark ruling in 1997 saying all children in North Carolina have the constitutional right to a "sound basic education." The high court defined the skills the education should provide and sent the case to Manning to work out the details of how that would be done.

The result was a set of sweeping rulings issued by Manning during the past 19 months that said it is the state’s responsibility to make sure students succeed. The state’s responsibility, Manning said, includes such things as pre-kindergarten programs for students at risk of failing and "competent, certified, well-trained" teachers for all children.

School officials were pleased with Manning’s ruling, and many school groups, including the N.C. School Boards Association, urged the state not to contest it.

Easley said he wanted to continue his push to expand his pre-kindergarten program and also reduce class sizes for the state’s primary grades.

Both are consistent with Manning’s rulings, and a broad appeal would leave the governor with little leverage in convincing lawmakers to support his program if the court case dragged on for several more years. At the same time, the timetables laid out in Manning’s rulings do not bind lawmakers to expand either program during the budget crisis that is defining the coming session of the General Assembly.

The questions presented to the Supreme Court are still critical to the long-term issues involved in the school-finance case.

"The differences between policy and law are certainly big ones," said Phil Kirk, chairman of the State Board of Education. "But it appears we are all pulling in the same direction on education issues now, and that answers a lot of questions for the short run.

"We still need answers to the legal questions for the long run."

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