The North Carolina Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Aug. 31 in a lawsuit adjacent to the long-running Leandro v. State of North Carolina case.
On Nov. 10, 2021, N.C. Superior Court Judge David Lee ruled that $1.7 billion should be invested into education by the state. However, Lee's decision was appealed, stopping the money from actually being invested.
On Wednesday, lawyers primarily argued over whether or not the court has the authority to force the state legislature to pay the remaining money ordered by Lee to be allocated towards school funding.
“One of the key things here is that this case is not weighing whether or not we need to invest more in education,” Mary Ann Wolf, president and executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, said. “What the appeals are about is who can make the legislature adequately fund our schools.”
The 2004 ruling by Judge Howard Manning on Leandro, dubbed “Leandro II,” affirmed that the state is obligated to provide adequate funding for public education.
The defendants and plaintiffs debated on Wednesday about whether that ruling's influence extended beyond Hoke County, the plaintiff in the 2004 ruling and one of the five original counties in the first Leandro trial.
“I believe Leandro II is actually another example of deference from the courts,” Amar Majmundar, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said. “The last line of that opinion says it remains to be seen if the state will follow through. Time after time, year after year we kept failing.”
Melanie Dubis, another attorney representing the plaintiffs, supported Majmundar’s argument by referencing the fact that there are thousands of vacant teaching and staff positions in North Carolina public schools.
“Last year there were over 3,000 vacant teaching positions across the state of N.C.,” she said. “Based on evidence such as that, Judge Manning and Judge Lee concluded that there are not teachers in every classroom in N.C. That is what Leandro II said is one of the things to look at, among others, and the state, therefore, is not providing the opportunity to a sound basic education.”
North Carolina’s average starting salary for teachers is $37,127, which is 45th in the nation, according to the National Education Association. The state is also more than $3,000 below the national average in per-pupil spending, with state and local investments combined.
Wolf said these statistics demonstrate a critical need for the state to invest more in education.
Matthew Ellinwood, the education and law project director for the North Carolina Justice Center, said he is grateful the state's supreme court is taking the case seriously.
“This is a case that has gone on for too long without any kind of remedy," he said. "The (N.C. Supreme Court) has recognized a number of times that the state is not upholding its constitutional requirements that are found in the North Carolina Constitution, but we've just never been able to have legislative action before now."
On Aug. 27, Every Child NC held a rally supporting the Leandro plaintiffs at Halifax Mall in Raleigh. Educators, organizations and community members from across the state demonstrated their support for North Carolina public education.
Members of the North Carolina Association of Educators were present at the rally, including regional director for NCAE and special education teacher in Guilford County Amy Harrison and kindergarten teacher in Martin County Cleta Harrell.
Harrell said she hopes the full amount of money will be released to fund the Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan, a plan whose implementation was ordered by Lee in June 2021. It aims to provide all children in the state with a sound, basic education.
The N.C. state budget falls more than $800 million short of the amount ordered by Judge David Lee in November 2021.
“I hope the outcome will be to release the money that could be put back in our system,” Harrell said. “There's so many kids who need to pre-K and can't go because their slots are not available. And these children need that structure from the very beginning. If they are given an opportunity to start at an early age, it would make my job so much easier.”
Heather Koons, the communications director for Public Schools First NC, said the state's budget surplus should be used to fund the plan.
"It's a really sad situation that our legislators are making choices that are not in the best interest of our citizens," she said.
In an Aug. 31 statement, the NC Justice Center applauded the N.C. Supreme Court for hearing arguments in the case and urged them to order the funding for the Leandro Plan.
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