RALEIGH — A state judge is warning that he may force lawmakers to act if they don’t begin funding a multi-billion dollar plan to provide every North Carolina student with a sound basic education.
This week, state Superior Court Judge David Lee signed a court order approving a plan from the State Board of Education and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration that calls for at least $5.6 billion in new education funding through 2028. Lee said in the order that “time is of the essence” because so many children aren’t getting what they need educationally.
“If the State fails to implement the actions described in the Comprehensive Remedial Plan ... ‘it will then be the duty of this Court to enter a judgment granting declaratory relief and such other relief as needed to correct the wrong,’” Lee wrote in the order.
Lee cited how Cooper’s proposed budget and House Bill 946 filed by Democratic lawmakers would fund the first two years of the action plan. The legislation funds items such as teacher and principal pay raises and additional state funding to expand the NC Pre-K program and hire more teacher assistants, school nurses, school social workers and school counselors.
The bill has not been acted on by the Republican-led General Assembly, which has repeatedly said that more money won’t necessarily solve the education problems.
The new court order comes after Lee had said in an April court hearing that he had no intention of telling lawmakers how much money they need to spend, according to EdNC.
The Leandro case
The “comprehensive remedial plan” is the state’s answer for how it will improve North Carolina’s public schools as part of the long-running Leandro school funding court case.
The Leandro case began in 1994 when school districts in five counties — Hoke, Halifax, Robeson, Vance and Cumberland — took the state to court. Leandro is the family that was originally the lead plaintiff when the lawsuit was filed.
In 1997, the state Supreme Court declared that the state Constitution guarantees every child “an opportunity to receive a sound basic education.” Then in 2004, the state Supreme Court held that the state’s efforts to provide a sound basic education to poor children were inadequate.
In a January 2020 court order, Lee said the state is further behind than it was in the 1990s in terms of providing students with a sound basic education. Lee ordered the state to “work expeditiously and without delay to take all necessary actions.”
Will lawmakers fund the plan?
It’s unclear how state lawmakers will respond to the new court order. GOP legislative leaders have previously been critical of both the state’s and Lee’s handling of the case.
“Even though the legislature is the only body with the constitutional authority to implement many of the suggestions contained in the document, its authors have not engaged in any meaningful way with legislators for a year,” Pat Ryan, a spokesman for Senate leader Phil Berger, said in a statement in March.
But Every Child NC, a coalition of community groups that has been calling on the state to carry out the Leandro court order, praised Lee’s decision. The coalition says the state has more than enough money to start funding the action plan.
“The responsibility to implement the Plan, comply with today’s Order, and fulfill an overdue constitutional obligation to North Carolina students now rests in the hands of the General Assembly,” Every Child NC said in a statement this week. “As the Order notes, the necessary legislation has already been written.”
But Terry Stoops, director of the John Locke Foundation’s Center For Effective Education, said Lee’s order is putting the state in line for a constitutional crisis. Stoops also said Lee is going far beyond his role as a judge in endorsing specific legislation.
“It seems that just weeks ago that Judge Lee was intent on avoiding a constitutional crisis that would violate the separation of powers,” Stoops said in an interview Thursday.
“Now, he appears to be willing to get the courts to impose an order on the General Assembly to compel them to spend money consistent with how the courts want them to spend money.”