Robeson County last week was a major player in a court hearing in Raleigh that could chart the path of education in North Carolina for the distant future, and most certainly will for the near future.
Lawyers representing Robeson, Hoke, Vance, Halifax and Cumberland counties — the plaintiffs in the landmark Leandro case — argued to Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr. that the recently approved state budget guts education spending enough to violate the state constitution’s guarantee of providing every child an opportunity to have a sound, basic education.
Manning, a Republican, was the point man to make sure deficiencies in the way the state funded education that the Leandro case exposed were remedied. The Leandro plaintiffs won a decade-long fight in 1997 when the state Supreme Court found that poor counties such as Robeson County could not provide the same educational opportunities as richer counties such as Wake because they didn’t have adequate local dollars. The state since then has redirected hundreds of millions of dollars to poor counties to try to provide equal footing.
Republicans, the chief architect of the state budget, have argued that the document only provides about $250 million less for education than did Gov. Bev Perdue’s plan. They say if Perdue’s budget protected education, theirs, which provides about 0.5 percent less for education than the governor’s, couldn’t be as destructive as critics insist.
They point to $250 million in unspent stimulus money that counties possess that can plug any funding gaps, and say that their budget does much more for education in the critical early grades by providing additional teachers. But their standing is made shaky by their refusal to extend a 1-cent sales tax that would have raised more than $1 billion and, according to Perdue and Democrats, fully funded education needs.
Manning made no ruling following the two-day hearing, which sets the stage for a classic power struggle between the state’s legislative and judicial branches. But he has shown no reluctance in the past to use the bench to ensure that education opportunities are divvied out evenly in this state.
In this instance, however, Manning is in the difficult position of not looking at a history of education as was showcased in the Leandro ruling, but instead is being asked to predict the effect of a budget that kicks in this coming Friday.
Manning didn’t tip his hand at all, and it’s unclear when he will make a decision. But what is clear is that his ruling could have titanic ramifications — or hardly any at all.