Monday, September 25, 2017
Court Rejects Plaintiffs' Bid to Hold Local County Accountable for Its Role in Inadequate and Unequal Education
The North Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of plaintiffs' complaint in Silver v. Halifax County Board of Commissioners. The case involved a claim that the Board's maintenance and operation of three distinct school districts within the county violated students' right to a sound basic education under the state constitution. The claim focused on the fact that the districts were racially identifiable, unequally funded, and qualitative disparate. Moreover, these facts were attributable to local, not state level, decisions.
Plaintiffs argue that as delegates of the state, the local authorities are obligated to provide a constitutionally appropriate education. To the extent their actions deprive plaintiffs of that education, plaintiffs are entitled to relief. The Court of Appeals read precedent far more narrowly, reasoning that prior state supreme court decisions had only directed the state to comply with the constitution. Thus, if plaintiffs have a gripe with the education in Halifax, they should take it up with the state: "the correct avenue for addressing plaintiffs’ concerns in the present case would appear to be through the ongoing litigation in Leandro I and Leandro II [the longstanding school adequacy suit against the state]."
The court, however, seemingly missed two distinctions. The first is causation. While the harms that plaintiffs in Silver suffer may be the same as the harm in Leandro--inadequate education--plaintiffs allege a different cause. To say plaintiffs must nonetheless sue the state is akin to saying that a victim of a car accident cannot sue the driver of the car that hit him because a manufacturing defect may have also existed and superceded the negligence of the driver. There may very well be a superceding defect, but that possibility does not preclude the negligence suit as a prima facie matter. Rather, the case must be litigated to determine the actual causes of the harms.
Second, the court assumes that prior case law placing the constitutional duty on the state means that the duty exclusively rest there. As the dissent in Silver points out, however, those prior decisions did not raise the question of local duties. Thus, there is no reason to infer those prior cases exclude a local duty. Moreover, as I detail in an article on access to middle income peers, some constitutional duties logically flow to local districts. Certain decisions, such as student assignment, are made at the local level and would be impracticable at the state level. The problem is not with state policy, but local implementation. The state may very well be responsible for those local failures. Often it is, but that does not mean this is always the case.
School discipline makes this point even clearer. The state has a constitutional duty to deliver education to students, but it is often the local principal or district that makes the decision to take that education away. Taken to its extreme, the opinion in Silver might suggest that those students should sue the state rather than their district. The reams of lawsuits against local districts reveal they are appropriate defendants.