Showdown with resistant General Assembly looms as gubernatorial commission urges implementation of court-approved plan
Flush with cash, the state of North Carolina owes its children “nothing less” than a fully funded Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan , the Governor’s Commission on Access to a Sound Basic Education unanimously agreed Tuesday.
The commission made its statement in a resolution  urging “state bodies, entities, and agencies to take all necessary actions” to implement the plan which outlines steps the state must take to meet its constitutional obligation to ensure students have access to sound basic education.
“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to use our state’s resources to truly transform and strengthen our public schools,” said Gov. Roy Cooper, who attended the early part of the commission’s virtual meeting. “Our state has the resources to live up to our constitutional obligation to our children and now is the time to do it.”
Experts say the money is there
Geoffrey Coltrane, the governor’s senior education advisor, noted that economists in the Office of State Budget and Management and the General Assembly’s Fiscal Research Division released a consensus revenue forecast in June that anticipates an additional $6.5 billion in state revenue through the next biennium.
The remedial plan calls for $691 million in additional education spending this year and $1.1 billion next year.
The full plan will cost $5.6 billion in recurring K-12 funding and $3.6 million in non-recurring funding through 2028. The seven-year plan includes money for teacher raises, expanding NC Pre-K programs and additional money for low-wealth school districts, among other items.
“We do have the resources available to implement the next two years of the plan,” Coltrane said. “We’re very fortunate as a state to be in a strong fiscal position.”
Commission Chairman Brad Wilson said the comprehensive, research-based plan would provide all students with the opportunity to receive a sound basic education.
“It is both a constitutional and a moral imperative that our state ensures that the Comprehensive Remedial Plan is fully implemented and that we allocate the resources necessary to get that done,” Wilson said.
The commission’s meeting took place as Cooper, a Democrat, and leaders of the Republican-controlled General Assembly appeared to begin to work in earnest toward a budget compromise.
Cooper said the commission’s support will be critical during budget negotiations.
“We know it will be difficult because we’ve seen comments made by certain legislators, but what I do know is that there seems to be a real willingness now to negotiate in good faith as we move forward,” the governor said.
Cooper said he doesn’t know if the negotiations will last days or weeks. He pledged to fight for items in the plan.
“As we enter these new trilateral budget negotiations, I will work as hard as I can for strong investments in this plan so that we can make it a reality,” Cooper said. “We have a transformational opportunity here. We have the funding.”
A constitutional showdown?
The commission’s meeting took place as Superior Court Judge David Lee’s deadline for state leaders to say how they will pay for the remedial plan fast approaches.
Earlier this month, Lee, the judge overseeing the landmark Leandro school funding case , signaled that he’s ready to take action if the General Assembly doesn’t come up with a design for funding the remedial plan by Oct. 15.
Lee has scheduled a hearing for Oct. 18 to discuss the next steps if agreement on such a plan has not been reached.
“I’m giving the legislative and executive branches one more last chance before they say we’re through,” said Lee, partially paraphrasing the words of a song by one of his favorite country singers, Vince Gill. “That’s not to threaten anybody. It’s to send a clear signal, clear as I know how; that come Oct. 18, if this hasn’t already been addressed as it should be addressed, as the court finds it needs to be addressed, [the court] will certainly be prepared to address it.”
Gov. Cooper’s budget proposal fully funds the first two years of the remedial plan. It would allocate $725.6 million in fiscal year 2021-22 and $1.15 billion in FY 2022-23.
Both the House and Senate proposals, however, allocate sums that are woefully short of the nearly $1.7 billion the architects of the plan say is needed to pay for the first two years of the plan.
The Senate’s proposal includes just $191.6 million in the first year and $213.7 million in the second. Meanwhile, the House’s proposal would appropriate $370 million and $382.1 million, respectively.
The Leandro case began more than a quarter-century ago after five rural school districts in low-wealth counties sued the state, arguing they couldn’t raise the tax revenue needed to provide students with a quality education.
In 1997, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling, later reconfirmed in 2004, in which it held that every child has a right to a “sound basic education” that includes competent and well-trained teachers and principals and equitable access to resources.
Commissioner Rick Glazier, a former state representative and current executive director of the North Carolina Justice Center, noted that all the pieces are in place for state lawmakers to act on the remedial plan. [Note: Policy Watch is a project of the NC Justice Center.]
The state has a constitutional mandate to provide children with a sound basic education; a consent judgment has been entered by the court and the state has conceded that North Carolina is not meeting its constitutional mandate; a comprehensive plan to achieve constitutional minimums are in place; and ample money exists to pay for the first two years of the plan, Glazier said.
He said the state must comply with Lee’s order.
“This is not a discretionary task; unless we believe the constitution to be a nullity and it clearly is not,” Glazier said. “It is the law and it applies to all of us in the state, including the three branches of government. The state has a responsibility, an obligation, a judgment that it must comply with.”
Leaders of the Republican-controlled General Assembly have been generally dismissive of Lee’s order and his threats to force them to pay for the remedial plan.
“I don’t know how much clearer we can be. If Judge Lee wants to help decide how to spend state dollars — a role that has been the exclusive domain of the legislative branch since the state’s founding — then Judge Lee should run for a seat in the House or Senate,” Pat Ryan, an aide to Senate leader Phil Berger, told Raleigh’s News & Observer earlier this month. “That’s where the constitution directs state budgeting decisions be made, not some county trial judge.”
As Policy Watch reported in July , there are mutiple examples in other states in which courts have forced reluctant legislatures to adequately fund K-12 education.
In 2015, for example, the Washington State Supreme Court held the state in contempt and fined it $100,000 per day after it failed to come up with a plan to adequately fund K-12 education as required by a 2012 court order in the case of McCleary v. Washington.
The fine came after threats of sanctions if lawmakers did not live up to what that state’s constitution called a “paramount” duty to amply fund schools in that state.
Lee said he’s aware of such actions.
“I’ve read some of the things that have happened in Kansas, Washington state and some of the other states that have similar constitutional provisions, but I’m not prepared to shine a light on that this morning,” Lee said on Sept. 8. “I will be prepared to shine a light on that on Oct. 18.”