RALEIGH, N.C. — Hoke County and four other poor school districts first filed a lawsuit nine years ago. They sought enough funding to provide the same education as wealthy districts.
Friday, the Supreme Court took their side, saying the state is not providing enough money for poor students.
The ruling upheld most of the court's landmark 1997 ruling ordering a "sound and basic" education for poor students.
Hoke County school officials said they are not getting the money they need to retain teachers and give at-risk students extra help. The state's highest court agreed that too many students in Hoke County are failing to get a sound and basic education, and the court said it is up to the state to make it right.
An attorney for dozens of low-wealth school districts in the state called the ruling a victory for North Carolina children.
"It is now clear, and it should never have been in doubt, that the state itself is responsible for the quality of public schools," attorney Gerry Hancock said. "You win by losing because, in this case, it's a ruling that's good for the kids."
North Carolina School Superintendent Mike Ward said the court's decision will improve student equity from Raleigh to Raeford.
"What the court has done is arm the state to spend differently in some places," Ward said, "to secure additional resources for districts that struggle to provide the kind of resources we think are necessary for yougnsters to get what they need."
Ward said the court's ruling will help secure that funding. State lawmakers recently failed to set aside millions of dollars as ordered by a Wake County Judge.
Gov. Mike Easley stepped in this week with an executive order that will send $12 million to poor school districts this year.
"In North Carolina, we are determined to keep making the changes and improvemebts to build the best educational system in America," Easley said in response to Friday's court ruling. "We can accept no less in order to effectively compete in today's economy."
The court decision, written by
outgoing Justice Robert Orr,
sided with the state only on the issue of who determines the proper age for attending school and reversed the lower court requirement of pre-kindergarten services for at-risk children.
"In our view, the trial court's mandate requiring the State to offer pre-kindergarten services to 'at-risk' prospective enrollees would be, at this juncture, a premature judicial encroachment on a core function of our state's legislative and executive branches," the Supreme Court said.