Panelists: N.C. residents need to know more about constitution
By Mark Wineka
“The people have a right to the privilege of education, and it is the duty of the State to guard and maintain that right.”Article I, Section 15, N.C. Constitution
Panelists holding a discussion on the Constitution of North Carolina and its relation to education said Thursday night the state’s citizenry must become more familiar with the document in general and, possibly, use it as a tool for change.
Former N.C. Supreme Court Justice Robert Orr said he spoke recently to a middle school class on Constitution Day and was surprised to find nothing in the students’ textbooks about the state Constitution.
Citizens should recognize the Constitution as a limitation on power and a protection against giving the legislative and executive branches of government blank checks, Orr said.
Article V of the N.C. Constitution says the power of taxation shall be used for public purposes only. Is the state’s giving the Dell computer company $300 million as incentive to locate in North Carolina a public purpose, Orr asked.
Terry Stoops, education policy analyst for the John Locke Foundation, agreed that N.C. schools are not doing a good job teaching the state’s Constitution.
State civics and economics curriculum tests had only three questions related to it, Stoops said.
Dr. John Dinan, a Wake Forest University political science professor, said knowing the state Constitution is important to being a good citizen.
N.C. voters also can play a significant role in making changes to it, he said. All that an amendment requires is a three-fifths favorable vote from the General Assembly and a majority vote from the electorate.
If North Carolinians don’t like the idea of an elected superintendent of public instruction, Dinan said as an example, they can move to change the Constitution.
If they don’t like funds being diverted from the “education lottery” to state government purposes other than education, citizens could lead and vote for a constitutional amendment against the diversion, Dinan said.
It’s an empowering document for citizens, he suggested.
Catawba College was the backdrop Thursday evening for the last of a three-part series looking at the N.C. Constitution.
Two other programs ó one on the state Constitution’s relation to taxes and the other on property rights ó had been held previously in Chowan County and Raleigh.
Thursday night’s panelists included Stoops; Dinan, author of “The American State Constitutional Tradition”; and Orr, executive director of the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law.
Salisbury attorney Bill Graham, a partner in Wallace and Graham, served as moderator. Graham and Orr were unsuccessful Republican candidates for governor in 2008.
The John Locke Foundation, N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law and the North Carolina History Project were sponsors for the three-part series.
The program was filmed as a documentary, which will be shown in a couple of weeks at cjtd.carolinajournal.com.
The panel accepted questions from the audience, and the free program also invited participants to take home a pocket copy of the N.C. Constitution.
The night touched on several topics such as the role of courts in significant educational issues, such as state funding, the state superintendent of public instruction’s position, vouchers, charter schools and higher education.
Orr said every year he expects a student in North Carolina to challenge the state on constitutional grounds that it’s not providing him or her a free education at a college or university.
Section 9 of Article IX of the N.C. Constitution says, “The General Assembly shall provide that the benefits of the University of North Carolina and other public institutions of higher education, as far as practicable, be extended to the people of the State free of expense.”
The panel talked at length about the Leandro case, twice upheld by the N.C. Supreme Court.
It basically determined that every N.C. child has a constitutional right to a sound, basic education after five low-wealth school districts ó Hoke, Halifax, Cumberland, Vance and Robeson counties ó sued the state saying their children were being deprived of their constitutional right because of inadequate facilities, technology and salaries.
The state system of funding, the suit argued, created an unequal and inadequate education in poor counties which had to rely on local property taxes to supplement state funding.
Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning has presided for years over this school funding equity case and has promised to use all the court’s powers to ensure that every child in North Carolina has the opportunity to receive a sound basic education.”
The Leandro case is named after a student in Hoke County, who went on to Duke University, and Manning has especially focused on Hoke County schools.
Orr said the original 1997 Leandro decision was one of the most significant in N.C. Supreme Court history. Manning has walked a fine line for years in trying to carry out the court’s order, he added.
“The question is, how far can the judge go?” Orr said.
Unlike a trend in other states where the courts are pulling back from educational funding issues, the N.C. judiciary has become intricately involved, Dinan noted.