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N. Carolina judge convenes hearing on maintaining adequacy during fiscal downturn

On October 22, Judge Howard Manning convened a “non-adversarial” hearing to assess the impact of North Carolina’s fiscal crisis on the implementation of the remedy in Hoke County Board of Education v. North Carolina. In his notice of hearing, the judge noted the seriousness of the state of the economy and its impact on revenue streams for the state’s executive and legislative branches. Nevertheless, he emphasized that “The financial crisis notwithstanding, the basic educational assets guaranteed to the children in North Carolina public schools must remain in place.”

At the hearing, the Court received substantial documentary evidence and testimony from a wide variety of state and plaintiff witnesses on the extent of program and staffing reductions in the budget adopted in August 2009. Plaintiffs claimed that the current budget reduced resources and eliminated programs important to compliance with the court’s requirements that every child be provided a competent teacher, a competent principal and adequate resources. They alleged that North Carolina’s FY 2009-2010 budget, among other things, eliminated staff development funding and a loan program for aspiring teachers, cut the More at Four preschool program budget by 5.8%, and reduced textbook funding by $48 million. Plaintiffs also estimate that the state lost 2,466 teaching positions and 108 instructional support personnel (counselors, social workers, etc.). The Court has taken the issue under advisement and is expected to issue a ruling in the near future.

Although Judge Manning appears to be the first judge who has pro-actively initiated procedures for considering the impact of the economic downturn on students’ constitutional rights to a sound basic education, attorneys and advocates in a growing number of states, including California, Indiana, Kansas and New York, are considering new legal initiatives to counter the growing impact on students rights of the escalating cuts in state and local education budgets.