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North Carolina must spend $1.75B to narrow education gap, judge orders


A North Carolina trial judge on Wednesday ordered the state to pay out $1.75 billion to help narrow the state’s public education inequities, angering Republicans who said the directive usurps lawmakers' constitutional authority over state coffers.

Superior Court Judge David Lee, who is charged with overseeing corrective responses to school funding litigation that began over a quarter-century ago, said the legislative and executive branches have been afforded every courtesy over the years to act decisively. But, he said, “this court's deference is at an end at this point."

The judge's action likely will set up a constitutional showdown between the three government branches.

Lee said his order wouldn’t take effect for 30 days, giving GOP leaders at the legislature time to appeal his decision, which is likely. Republicans who control the legislature say only the General Assembly can appropriate funds in state accounts and that Lee violates the state constitution if he acts contrary to that.

The state Supreme Court ruled in 2004 in the Leandro lawsuit — named after an original student plaintiff — that while North Carolina’s children have a fundamental right to the “opportunity to receive a sound basic education” under the constitution, the state had not lived up to that mandate.

“The repeated failure by the state is a constitutional violation that has to be remedied,” Lee said during a court hearing, saying he's hopeful the order will “minimize the encroachment on legislative authority through the least intrusive remedy that I can come up with.”

Lee’s order, which largely backs the wishes of local school boards and guardians of current students who remain plaintiffs, tells state finance officials to send enough funds to three agencies to cover two years of a remedial spending plan that targets at-risk children.

The remedial plan, which is based on an outside consultant’s report and input from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and the State Board of Education, calls for at least $5.6 billion in new education funding by 2028. That plan includes funding to improve teacher recruitment and salaries, hire more school support personnel, expand pre-kindergarten and boost funding to educate children in low-wealth counties and students with disabilities.

An appeal means that near-term education funding will depend on a two-year state budget bill that Cooper and Republicans are still negotiating. Cooper proposed the $1.7 billion remedial package in his spending proposal months ago, but House and Senate budget bills fell well short of that total. The House plan, for example, provided $615 million over two years, according to a court document.

House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger said after the hearing that a judge “does not have the legal or constitutional authority to order a withdrawal from the state’s general fund.”

“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 Republicans said in a joint statement.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs and their allies have said the state has shirked its responsibilities to too many children in the generation following the 2004 ruling, and there's no excuse to act now when more than $8 billion in unused funds are in state accounts.

They said Supreme Court decisions, combined with language in the North Carolina Constitution approved by voters a half-century ago, give Lee authority to order funds be spent without a specific law passed by the General Assembly.

During the hearing, Lee cited a part of the state constitution that says “the people have a right to the privilege of education, and it is the duty of the state to guard and maintain that right.”

Copyright 2021 WFAE

Gary D. Robertson | Associated Press