No more excuses for lawmakers when it comes to public schools

July 1, 2021 6:00 am
a desk in a classroom with books and an apple on it

Image: Adobe Stock

Image: Adobe Stock

Veteran civil rights attorney explains why the General Assembly must comply with a court order to adequately fund public education

State Superior Court Judge David Lee recently issued the latest order in the Leandro v. State lawsuit. The judge directed the state to remedy the longstanding violation of the constitutional right of North Carolina public school children to a “sound basic education — by implementing a comprehensive remedial plan developed by the state itself.

The plan would, by 2028, fix a range of deficits in the public schools: from the quality and compensation of teachers, to the provision of sufficient counselors and other support staff, to expanding access to preschool.

After more than a decade of deep cuts in public education spending, the Leandro remedial plan also calls for the state to increase school funding by over $500 million this year and $1 billion next year to follow through on these critical investments in North Carolina students.

Given the state’s improved fiscal condition, the remedial plan requires neither raising taxes nor cutting spending in other areas. Gov. Roy Cooper recommended the increases in his proposed budget, and a House bill would implement and fund the first two years of the comprehensive plan.

As Judge Lee recognizes in his order, the increases in funding required to implement Leandro are now clearly “attainable.”

Unfortunately, several Republican legislators were quick to accuse Judge Lee of overstepping the court’s authority and violating the separation of powers between the branches of state government. On this point, they are flat wrong.

The Leandro case implicates the state’s affirmative duty to ensure all public school students the education guaranteed them under the North Carolina Constitution. More than two decades ago, the State Supreme Court in Leandro made clear that the judicial branch is responsible for deciding if the state is violating its duty and, if a violation is found, ordering a remedy.

The Supreme Court also made clear that both the executive and legislative branches are obligated to take the actions necessary to remedy that constitutional violation.

This is precisely what Judge Lee has ordered. His order is restrained and measured, reflecting the respective responsibilities of the other branches. The order makes clear that the executive branch must “seek” the funding to remedy the legal violation and then work with the Legislature to “secure” that funding. The Governor has done precisely that.

The matter is now in the hands of legislators. But the Governor’s proposed funding increase for Leandro is no ordinary budgetary proposal. Rather, it is of constitutional magnitude, long overdue and needed to address the state’s profound and longstanding failure to ensure all public school children in the state have access to a constitutionally compliant education. In North Carolina’s system of state government, the executive branch has done its constitutional duty by presenting a specific funding request. It is now up to the legislature to follow through.

In the 24 years since the Leandro decision, the state’s constitutional wrong has not been corrected, despite the judiciary having provided the executive and legislative branches ample opportunity to do so. This failure has had a profoundly negative impact on the state by depriving generations of school children of the basic educational resources every child needs to succeed in school and in life.

As Judge Lee noted, the cost to the state is immeasurable when “thousands of students are not being prepared for full participation in the global, interconnected economy and the society in which they live, work and engage as citizens.”

Judge Lee has set the stage for legislators to step up and fulfill their solemn constitutional duty to North Carolina’s public school children. Nothing less than the state’s future health and vitality hangs in the balance.

David Sciarra is a practicing civil rights lawyer and the executive director of the Education Law Center.

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