RALEIGH, N.C. — After two decades fighting about public school funding for North Carolina’s poorest students, attorneys on both sides of a long-running lawsuit say it’s time for them to step away from the courtroom and leave ongoing disputes to a neutral outsider.

Attorneys for the state and school districts in poor communities on Monday asked a state monitor to appoint an independent consultant who will suggest further steps for state officials to improve education for all children as required by the landmark Leandro case. The decision came 20 years after the state Supreme Court ruled in the lawsuit that the North Carolina Constitution guarantees every child “an opportunity to receive a sound basic education.”

Gov. Roy Cooper’s office on Tuesday released an executive order Cooper signed last week creating a commission of experts to suggest what the state needs to do next.

The commission and the consultant the Leandro attorneys want the court to appoint would “develop detailed, comprehensive, written recommendations for specific actions necessary to achieve sustained compliance with the constitutional mandates established in Leandro,” Cooper’s order states. Recommendations could come in late 2018.

State lawmakers would have to approve spending on any public education enhancements. Spokesmen for state Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore did not respond to requests for comment on the moves by Cooper and the attorneys.

The lawsuit against the state was filed in 1994 by parents, children and school districts in five poor and largely rural counties — Hoke, Halifax, Robeson, Vance and Cumberland. They argued that, despite high tax rates their local schools couldn’t generate enough revenues to provide an education for their children equal to what richer, urban districts could provide.

The state Supreme Court ruled that while there’s no constitutional right to equal funding, every North Carolina child had a fundamental “opportunity to receive a sound basic education” and that the state was responsible to deliver that promise. For example, the court ruled in the case in 2002, the state must provide a competent, well-trained teacher in every classroom and principal managing every schoolhouse.

The lawsuit has continued because “the state still has not achieved compliance with the constitutional requirements established in this case,” attorneys representing the plaintiffs and the UNC Center for Civil Rights said in their court filing.


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