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Judge orders NC to spend $1.7B more on public schools, in Leandro case milestone


A North Carolina judge has ordered state officers to transfer $1.7 billion from reserves in the state general fund to support an improvement plan for public education within 30 days. The order is the latest milestone in the landmark Leandro court case over public education funding in North Carolina. The judge’s decision prompted immediate criticism from Republican state lawmakers.

Superior Court Judge David Lee's order reflected a plan plaintiffs submitted last week at his request for a proposed remedy to the 27-year-old case. The money would fund the first two years of a remedial plan for public education based on recommendations by an out-of-state consultant WestEd. That plan was approved by the court and all parties to the case.

The Leandro case dates back to 1994 when families and school boards in five low-wealth counties sued the state of North Carolina arguing that their children's educational opportunities were not the same as children in wealthier districts. In 2016, Judge David Lee was appointed to monitor the ongoing case between those school districts and the state of North Carolina.

Republicans in the General Assembly are calling Lee's order unconstitutional. Senate Leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore released a joint statement calling Democrats’ defense of the decision a "circus." Moore called Lee "a rogue judge."

Senate Republicans have released multiple press releases in the past week saying the issue is "cut and dry." They argue that under the state constitution and legal precedent, only the legislature has the power to spend tax dollars.

Lee argued in court today that while the General Assembly is granted authority over appropriating tax dollars as the voice of the people, "the state constitution is the direct mandate of the people itself."

In 1997, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in the Leandro case that the state constitution affirms the right of every child to the access to a “sound, basic education.” Later court rulings promised a well-trained teacher in every classroom and a qualified principal in every school.

The remedial plan agreed on by the parties funds improvements to “critical needs,” spanning from teacher recruitment and retention, to early childhood education, and expanded resources for economically disadvantaged and at-risk children.

Lawmakers have noted in press releases that they are not a party to the case and that Governor Roy Cooper's administration, a defendant in the case, helped fund the creation of the remedial plan.

The Republican House and Senate’s proposed budgets would fund up to one third of the first two years of the plan. The full plan would increase public school funding by $5.6 billion over eight years.

Lee has argued that with the absence of an approved state budget, the court has shown deference to the legislature long enough.

“These numbers are the only numbers I have,” Lee said, referring to the funding proposed in the remedial plan. He added that to his knowledge, the legislature has never done a comprehensive study on adequate funding for education.

Members of Every Child NC, a coalition that includes local NAACP chapters and advocates for full funding of the remedial plan, held a debrief online following the decision.

“Today was a victory, but it may be a short-lived victory because we don’t know what response we’ll get from the state once they get this decision,” said Reverend Corine Mack, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg chapter of the NAACP.

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