Five steps Gov. Cooper can take to ensure the Leandro ruling benefits students for years to come

December 9, 2022 6:00 am
Classroom image: AdobeStock

In November, the Supreme Court handed down a landmark ruling in the long-running Leandro court case. By a 4-3 margin, the justices ordered the state to provide our public schools, early education providers, and higher education institutions the funding necessary to implement years two and three of the Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan.

The court ruled that the state continues to violate the constitutional rights of North Carolina’s students to have access to a “sound basic education.”

The Leandro Plan puts North Carolina on a course to meet this basic goal by the 2027-28 school year. The past two state budgets fell about $690 million short of what the Plan called for. These funds must now be transferred to provide North Carolina’s students the money they are owed.

The opinion, authored by Justice Robin E. Hudson, is expertly crafted, providing an accessible history of the long-running case. Hudson writes compellingly on the shared societal benefits of a strong public school system and draws on legal precedent to precisely demonstrate the court’s authority to secure these basic resources for students.

Hudson’s order, however, loses its precision when discussing the specific mechanics of the requirement to “transfer the funds necessary to comply with Years 2 and 3 of the State’s Comprehensive Remedial Plan.”

Depending on how this language is interpreted, it could set the foundation for a substantial, sustained infusion of school resources that will benefit public school students…or it could be merely a symbolic victory that fails to meet students’ needs.

The good news is that proactive measures from Governor Cooper can help us avoid the latter scenario. Below are five steps Gov. Cooper should take to ensure that this historic ruling benefits North Carolina’s public school students for years to come.

1. Update the Leandro Plan budget figures to reflect the actual cost of implementation.

The Leandro Plan was crafted in late 2020, making the estimated costs of implementation two years old. Changes in inflation, personnel costs, and enrollment mean that the estimated costs of the Plan are out-of-date.

This has implications across the board, but particularly in the area of teacher pay. The Leandro Plan called for teachers to receive a pay raise of 7% over the 2020-21 to 2022-23 biennium. But because of inflation, those initial estimates mean that teachers are getting a pay cut in real terms. We’ve moved backwards from the Leandro goal of providing teachers with pay that’s competitive with other degree-requiring professions.

While teacher pay is the most glaring example, the governor should update the cost estimates for all elements of the Leandro Plan. Relying on outdated cost estimates risks leaving North Carolina well behind the pace for providing a constitutional school system by 2028.

2. Build the recurring elements of Leandro Plan Years Two and Three items into the base budget.

The Leandro court orders have focused on identifying the difference between the funding called for in the Leandro Plan and the actual funding provided in state budgets for the 2022 and 2023 fiscal years. In April, Judge Robinson identified a shortfall of $258 million for fiscal year 2022. The Supreme Court tasked Judge Robinson with calculating the 2023 shortfall which I have estimated at $434 million. This puts the total estimated shortfall at $692 million.

The idea that this money is meant to support specific recurring investments has largely been absent from the conversation. For example, Year Three of the Leandro Plan calls for increasing supports for students with disabilities by $70 million, using $30 million to reverse the legislature’s draconian cuts to teacher assistants, $45 million to increase available slots in NC Pre-K, and $80 million to hire more nurses, psychologists, counselors and social workers.

For these investments to have their intended effect – to allow schools to hire the appropriate personnel – funding must be made recurring. A one-time lump sum of $692 million will do our students little good, particularly if the money must be spent by June 30, the end of this fiscal year.

To ensure that these investments are used in the intended way, the governor must make the funding recurring. He can do that by building the recurring elements of the Leandro Plan – essentially the entirety of the year three shortfall of $434 million – into the base budget. That will ensure the continuation of these funds, absent additional action from the General Assembly to make massive cuts to the public school and early education budgets.

3. Make it clear to legislators that offsetting cuts will not be allowed.

Speaker of the House Tim Moore suggested that the General Assembly might undermine the Supreme Court’s ruling by simply cutting education budgets to offset the transferred funds. Gov. Cooper should make it clear to legislators that such shenanigans will not be allowed.

That is, Gov. Cooper should state clearly that he will refuse to implement any budget line items that reduce Leandro Plan items below Year Three levels.

The governor is under a court order to “administer those funds to guarantee and maintain the opportunity of a sound basic education.” Additional language requires all state actors “to do what is necessary to fully effectuate years 2 & 3 of the Comprehensive Remedial Plan.” Furthermore, the State Budget Act gives Gov. Cooper the authority to increase agency budgets above the levels passed by the General Assembly if required by a court order. Governor Cooper should go on the record now, promising to use that authority to fulfill his obligations under Leandro and protect the funding that students are owed.

4. Ensure that monitoring and oversight of the state’s progress towards meeting and sustaining Leandro goals is transparent and includes representation from communities most impacted by the state’s historic failures to provide a sound basic education.

The ruling calls on the trial court to monitor compliance with future years of the Leandro Plan. That is a massive undertaking that requires substantial expertise and capacity for data collection and analysis.

The Governor can facilitate the court’s efforts by establishing a Leandro monitoring commission that draws on the substantial expertise of the families that have historically been shortchanged by the state’s failure to provide constitutional funding for our schools. The commission should include representation for students of color, students with disabilities, multilingual learners, students from rural low-wealth communities, LGBTQ students, and students from families with low incomes.

Students from these groups have paid the highest price for the state’s Leandro failures. Their expertise and dreams for what our schools can and should look like must be front and center of determining whether the state is meeting its constitutional requirements going forward.

5. Build public support for Leandro to ensure that the state fully implements the Plan and continues to meet its constitutional obligations to students for generations to come

Ultimately, the students of North Carolina can’t rely solely on the courts and the governor to see Leandro through. We know from other states’ experiences that fully implementing and sustaining the Leandro Plan requires a political movement to ensure that lawmakers continue to do their job of providing all students with access to a sound basic education.

As the most prominent elected official in the state, Gov. Cooper can use the power of the bully pulpit to raise awareness and support for adequately and equitably funded schools. He should be talking about Leandro at every possible opportunity. A 100-county tour explaining what’s at stake would dramatically improve awareness and support of the Plan.

Families know that their schools are struggling. They see dilapidated classrooms that often lack full-time teachers. They know buses might not show up due to lack of drivers. They know too many children who are struggling with mental health challenges and can’t find the help they need.

Unfortunately, too few realize that these struggles are the direct result of deliberate General Assembly policies that have left our school funding effort dead last in the nation. Too few realize that our constitution guarantees their children so much more and that a plan exists to ensure that every student has the resources and support they need to flourish.

The governor must use the power of the bully pulpit to inform North Carolinians about these issues so that voters can serve as the ultimate accountability for sustaining a constitutional school system in every community.

The Leandro ruling offers a rare opportunity to secure a long overdue increase in school resources. It’s imperative that policymakers don’t let this opportunity slip through their fingers. But if the governor makes use of his power, he can ensure that this historic ruling benefits students for years to come.

Kris Nordstrom is a senior policy analyst in the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education & Law Project.

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Kris Nordstrom
Kris Nordstrom

Kris Nordstrom is a Senior Policy Analyst with the North Carolina Justice Center's Education & Law Project. He previously spent nine years with the North Carolina General Assembly’s nonpartisan Fiscal Research Division.