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Education

NC Judge Orders Education Improvements, But Legislature Controls Funding

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RALEIGH — A trial judge has backed a plan from Gov. Roy Cooper and the State Board of Education on how to comply with North Carolina constitutional requirements in public education, which could cost several billion dollars to carry out.

Superior Court Judge David Lee signed a court order this week approving the proposal, which calls for at least $5.6 billion in new education funding through 2028. But it can’t be carried out without funding from the legislature. The “Comprehensive Remedial Plan” addresses failures in meeting the constitutional duty, as declared by the state Supreme Court, to provide every student the opportunity for a sound basic education.

The Democratic governor's proposed state budget and legislation filed by House Democrats would seek to fund the first two years of the plan. It is difficult for the judicial branch to force the General Assembly to spend money. Lee’s order suggested he would attempt to apply legal pressure for action if the plan gets idled, The News & Observer of Raleigh reported.

“If the state fails to implement the actions described in the Comprehensive Remedial Plan … 'it will then be the duty of this Court to enter a judgment granting declaratory relief and such other relief as needed to correct the wrong,’” Lee wrote, citing in part an earlier Supreme Court ruling.

The plan, which germinated from an outside consultant’s report, includes funding improvements to help low-income students and those with disabilities, and to hire more school support personnel. Increased pay for teachers, principals and assistant principals is included, as well as efforts to improve teacher diversity and competency and child access to prekindergarten.

Republicans in the Senate have been cool to deferring to a judge’s demands on funding, citing the separation of power between the branches of government. They’ve pointed to the growth in K-12 education funding since the GOP took over the legislature a decade ago.

“A court has no more authority to direct the legislature to spend money or enact policy than the legislature does to direct a trial judge how to decide a case,” Sen. Deanna Ballard, a Watauga County Republican and education committee leader, said in a statement Thursday. “If Judge Lee wants a say in education policy, he can run for the state legislature. That is the only way his opinions will have any weight.”

Lee’s order marks the latest development in school funding litigation known as “Leandro” that began in 1994. In 2004, the state Supreme Court declared the state had not fulfilled the mandate of a sound basic education. Interest in compliance picked up in 2019 when the consultant declared little progress had been made to meet the constitutional directive.

Every Child NC, composed of community groups that back state compliance as spelled out in “Leandro,” praised Lee’s order and said the state has enough money to start funding the plan.

“The responsibility to implement the plan, comply with (the) order and fulfill an overdue constitutional obligation to North Carolina students now rests in the hands of the General Assembly,” Every Child NC said in a statement this week.

Lee's order, dated Monday, tells state officials to submit a progress report on fulfilling his order by Aug. 6.