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Court Order Splits NC House Over Education Spending

House Republicans are trumpeting their two-year North Carolina government budget proposal for an education construction spree and for state teacher raises at levels that are higher than what the Senate passed in June.

“It does take care of North Carolina from the mountains to the coast and everything in between,” House Speaker Tim Moore of Cleveland County said at a news conference this week unveiling the initial plan. “It recognizes probably the greatest investment that we've seen to ... improve the lives of ordinary North Carolinians that I've ever seen.”

But Democrats on Tuesday said the GOP spending for public education is not enough to meet requirements of the state constitution, and they're using a judge's order to press their case at a time of massive surpluses. The judge said recently the state should spend at least $5.6 billion in new education funding through 2028, including well over $1 billion this year and next to comply with Supreme Court rulings that say the state must provide every student the opportunity for a sound basic education.

The budget measure, which made its way through the House budget-writing committee on Tuesday with debate and amendments, falls well short on that mandate, said Rep. Julie von Haefen, a Wake County Democrat. The House Appropriations Committee debated amendments before approving the measure. It will the House floor on Wednesday for the first of two required chamber votes.

“The court has ordered this money to be appropriated, and this budget doesn’t even come close to doing what the first two years of the remedial plan required,” von Haefen told reporters. There's plenty of money to meet these and other education needs pushed by Republicans, she added: “If that was our priority, we could do both absolutely.”

The order signed in June by Judge David Lee backs a plan from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and the State Board of Education to meet the requirements of the Leandro court rulings, named for an original plaintiff in litigation filed in the mid-1990s.

The remedial plan included 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 in the plan, but no dollar value for the increases were set. The plan also focuses on increasing teacher diversity and competency and expanding prekindergarten access. Von Haefen and other House Democrats filed a bill designed to begin carrying out that plan and fund it.

Republican legislators said the judge can’t force them to spend money, saying the power of the purse rests alone with the General Assembly, according to the state constitution. And the General Assembly hasn’t been a legal party in the litigation and its aftermath.

But they said they have continued to increase public education spending in recent years and have focused on many policy prescriptions contained in the remedial plan. The House budget would spend over $14.7 billion for public education this year, or 57% of the $25.7 billion spending plan.

“We were not part of Leandro. We weren’t brought in those discussions. So we’ve been handed a plan without our input,” said Rep. Dean Arp, a Union County Republican and senior budget writer. But “I think when you look across the board, many things in Leandro” can be found in the budget, he added.

But von Haefen said the numbers don’t bear that out. The North Carolina Justice Center, an advocacy group representing low-income residents, calculated that funding unrelated to salaries needed to meet the remedial plan's proposal is $375 million this year and $614 million next year. The House budget would cover 24% of those needs this year and 16% of the second-year requirement, according to the center's analysis. The percentages in the Senate budget are slightly less than the House in each year.

The House and Senate ultimately will negotiate a final spending plan to present to Cooper, who wants to inject enough of his own policy priorities in the ultimate budget that he can sign it. But he's unhappy with corporate tax cuts, which are contained in each bill, and a host of other proposals, including in education.

“The House budget is better than the bad Senate budget, but that doesn't make it good,” Cooper tweeted.

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