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Judge one step closer to ordering the N.C. General Assembly to boost education funding

Martin Bureau
AFP/Getty Images
File photo of students in a classroom.

A Wake County Superior Court judge took a step today toward ordering the North Carolina General Assembly to increase public education funding by billions of dollars.

In a court hearing for the Leandro case, an on-going landmark education case in North Carolina, Judge David Lee asked attorneys representing low-wealth school districts to draft an order for him to consider that would direct the legislature to fund a remedial plan for public education.

The Leandro case centers on the state's constitutional duty to provide equal access to education to all North Carolina students. In 1994, families from five low-wealth school districts sued the state arguing that their access to education was not equal to students in wealthier counties.

The North Carolina Supreme Court later ruled that the state constitution grants every child a right to a “sound, basic education” and that the state was not living up to that promise. The Supreme Court has appointed Judge David Lee to monitor the case in recent years.

Under Lee’s direction, the court has already approved an independent consultant’s remedial plan to improve public education, to the tune of about $5.6 billion over 8 years.

Funding for education has largely stagnated since the General Assembly and Governor Roy Cooper have failed to pass a state budget since 2018. The Legislature’s June 30 deadline to pass a budget has again come and gone.

Attorney for the state Amar Majmundar said the General Assembly might pass a biennial budget in a matter of weeks, but it’s unclear how much the final budget will commit to funding the court’s recommendations once legislators and the governor finish their negotiations.

That leads to a constitutional question of whether Judge Lee can make the General Assembly fund the plan, given the separation of powers between branches of government.

“On the question of who decides how to spend state dollars, the Constitution is clear: the Legislature, and only the Legislature,” Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said in a statement emailed from his press office.

In court Monday, attorneys representing low wealth school districts argued the court has the legal authority to order other state agencies to act, even to levy taxes. Attorneys cited historic school desegregation cases as precedent for a court’s authority to force other agencies to act in matters that protect the constitutional rights of citizens.

Attorney David Hinojosa described a similar case in Kansas, in which a judge temporarily closed public schools until Kansas legislators enacted a finance plan to fulfill educational duties in that state’s constitution.

“They didn't take too long for somebody to act on that did it?” Lee asked. “Maybe the weekend?”

In a press release, Berger’s press office called Lee “unhinged” for “contemplating” the idea of closing schools to pressure the lawmakers to act on a spending plan they were not involved in writing.

Lee concluded his round of questioning about the Kansas case by saying he did not intend to repeat the Kansas judge’s “bold” action.

“I don't want to close any school,” Lee said. “Don't get me wrong, I’m just making inquiries.”

Lee is granting attorneys for the plaintiffs two weeks to craft a proposed order for his consideration. Attorneys for the state will have one week to review and accept the proposal or submit a counter offer. Lee will either issue an order or hold another hearing November 8th.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the cost of an independent consultant’s remedial plan to improve public education.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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