The Pulse

Senate budget writers opt to violate constitution, denying NC students the education they are owed

By: - June 25, 2021 8:04 am

The Senate budget proposal unveiled this week contains a shocking admission: Senate leaders are content to violate their oath to uphold the North Carolina Constitution, denying full citizenship to the state’s 1.5 million public school students.

Over the past 27 years as part of the Leandro court case, North Carolina courts have consistently found – under both Democratic and Republican leadership – that the state has failed to provide all students with access to the “sound basic education” that they are owed under our constitution. In the case’s most recent development, Judge David Lee has ordered state leaders to fully implement a seven-year plan to meet this constitutional obligation by the 2027-28 school year.

Lawmakers have leaned on a bevy of excuses over the years for failing to provide students with the education they are owed. Some pointed to uncertainty around the specific steps necessary to fully deliver a constitutional education and financing the necessary systemic investments. Others thought the reforms too expensive, requiring unpopular tax increases.

In 2021, those excuses no longer hold water.

We know what steps must be taken. Lawmakers have at their disposal a detailed, seven-year plan documenting the fiscal, programmatic, and strategic steps necessary to provide students the education they are owed. The Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan is informed by multiple years of intense study from some of the nation’s top independent education experts. Those experts (as well as the courts) have reviewed and endorsed the Plan, which would ramp up state investment over a seven-year period to meet the state’s constitutional requirements by the 2027-28 school year. The Plan shows, year-by-year, the specific investments necessary to provide all students with access to high-quality and diverse teachers and principals, how to create a school finance system that’s adequate and equitable, the supports necessary to help schools overcome poverty-related barriers, how to nurture our youngest children so they start kindergarten on similar footing, and the reforms necessary to improve ties to college and careers.

Lawmakers don’t even have to do the technical work to convert the plan into actionable legislation. Both the Governor’s Recommended Budget and HB 946 would fully implement the first two years of the Plan.

Nor can lawmakers cry poverty. The Governor’s Recommended Budget showed legislators how the first two years of the Leandro Plan can be implemented without tax increases. Since that document was released, the state’s revenue forecast has improved. As a result, legislators have unprecedented availability which could be deployed to meet North Carolinians needs. They could fund the first two years of the plan more than six times over, without raising a single penny of additional taxes. While the Plan envisions gradually ramping-up funding over seven years, legislators could fund the entire slate of reforms and investments next year, again without raising taxes. We can also look to the money the Senate plan leaves unspent: $5.5 billion over the next two years, which is three times what’s necessary to fund the first two years of the Leandro Plan.

Senate leaders have no excuses to point to. There are no difficult trade-offs to navigate. They have simply decided to ignore their constitutional obligations to North Carolina’s students. This is a stunning admission. They are saying that they get to choose which laws are legitimate and which laws they can simply ignore. They are saying that North Carolina’s students don’t deserve the rights granted to them. They are saying they’d rather piles of cash sit unused than make the investments necessary to provide North Carolina students the bare minimum of what they are owed and what they’ve been waiting on for more than 27 years.

Unfortunately, some Senate leaders are muddying the waters by trying to claim their budget aligns with the Leandro plan. This couldn’t be further from the truth. A spreadsheet circulated by Sen. Deanna Ballard (who now has a track record of spreading disinformation on this topic) includes several items that are not even part of the Leandro Plan (such as pay increases for central office staff) and attempts to take credit for one-time federal money that fails to address students’ ongoing needs. As Judge David Lee explained in his June 7 court order, “federal COVID-related funding is non-recurring and cannot be relied upon by the State to sustain ongoing programs that are necessary to fulfill the State’s constitutional obligation to provide a sound basic education to all North Carolina children.” Even with those errors, their calculations fall well short of what the courts have determined is necessary.

A more honest accounting shows that the Senate budget would fund just 17 percent of the Plan in FY 2021-22, falling to 13 percent in FY 2022-23. The Senate budget falls spectacularly short of what students are owed and is blatantly in violation of Judge Lee’s court order mandating that the “Comprehensive Remedial Plan shall be implemented in full and in accordance with the timelines set forth therein.”

By ignoring Judge Lee’s court order, this budget is an intentional step on the part of legislative leaders to drive our state towards a constitutional crisis. Legislators have been found liable for violating the constitutional rights of students. They are now audaciously insisting they can’t be held accountable for that violation and are free to ignore whichever parts of the State Constitution they disagree with. This is a problem not only for public school students, but for democracy writ large.

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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.