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N.C. judge orders $1.7B to fund public education in latest Leandro case development

A student of Frank Porter Graham Elementary follows paw prints printed on the sidewalk from carpool toward the school early in the morning on March 26, 2021. CHCCS have recently reopened in-person instruction, although many children are still learning virtually.

In a court hearing Wednesday, N.C. Superior Court Judge David Lee ordered the state to provide $1.7 billion to increase funding for public education.

This is the latest ruling in the Leandro case that began 27 years ago and aims to provide a basic sound public education for North Carolina students.

“Today’s historic order provides long needed and critical investments for our students and our schools — and ultimately, for our communities and our economy,” Mary Ann Wolf, president and executive director of the Public School Forum of N.C., said in a press release on Nov. 10. “This includes research-based investments in human resources, greater access to educational opportunities, and improvements to the accountability and finance systems that impact education every day.”  

Five low-wealth school districts and families initially filed the lawsuit in 1994 to seek state funding for equal opportunity to sound basic education. 

In the 1997 Leandro v. State and 2004 Hoke County Board of Education v. State rulings, the North Carolina Supreme Court said the state had a constitutional obligation to provide a sound basic education to all children. 

“Since at least the case’s beginnings in 1994, the State of North Carolina has failed to provide students with the education they are owed under our constitution," a Nov. 10 press release from Every Child NC read. "That failure has disproportionately been borne by students of color, students from families with low incomes, English learners, students with disabilities, and rural students.”

Little has been done in the 17 years since this ruling in 2004.

Gov. Roy Cooper created the Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education in 2017 to address the issues highlighted in the original Leandro ruling. 

A year later, Lee appointed WestEd, an independent consultant, to provide recommendations to improve public schools in North Carolina. 

An eight-year comprehensive remedial plan was submitted to the court in March of this year based on the work of WestEd and the Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education.

In June, Lee signed an order that North Carolina must implement the plan.

Now, Lee has ordered the transfer of $1.52 billion from the General Fund to the state Department of Public Instruction, $189.8 million to the Department of Health and Human Services and $41.3 million to the UNC System as part of the Comprehensive Remedial Plan. The transfers must go through the state budget director, controller and treasurer.

“The Court has given the State seventeen years to arrive at a proper remedy, and numerous opportunities proposed by the State have failed to live up to their promise," Lee said in the order. “Seventeen classes of students have since gone through schooling without a sound basic education.” 

North Carolina had $8 billion in reserves and more than $5 billion in forecasted revenues as of August, according to the court order. However, the state has not yet fully allocated funds toward the Comprehensive Remedial Plan.

“Legislators can’t simply erase this right because they don’t like it," Cooper said in a Nov. 10 statement on Twitter. "We have an effective, court-approved roadmap for making education better in North Carolina, and it’s time to get it done.”

Some Republican leaders in the General Assembly call Lee’s order to transfer state funds unconstitutional. A joint statement from Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore cites the 2020 Cooper v. Berger. N.C. Supreme Court ruling that confirmed the General Assembly has the sole authority over state funds.

“This case has devolved into an attempt by politically allied lawyers and the Governor to enact the Governor’s preferred budget plan via court order, cutting out the legislature from its proper and constitutional role,” the joint statement read.

In the Nov. 10 ruling, Lee stayed his order for 30 days to give the other branches of government time to take further action in accordance with the court’s findings. 

“In terms of the 30-day stay that Judge Lee imposed in his November 10 order, it’s not clear what happens next,” Christine Scheef, legal counsel and director of policy for the North Carolina School Boards Association, said in an email. 

She said the Supreme Court will likely have to resolve the issue.

“The Governor and the legislative leaders have different perspectives on the case and on the judge’s authority to order the distribution of public money to the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Public Instruction, and the UNC system,” Scheef said in the email.

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Emmy Martin

Emmy Martin is the 2023-24 editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as the DTH's city & state editor and summer managing editor. Emmy is a junior pursuing a double major in journalism and media and information science. 

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