A North Carolina judge is giving state lawmakers three more weeks to put billions of dollars of new funding into public schools before he potentially orders them to do so.
State Superior Court Judge David Lee said Monday that he can compel the General Assembly to fund a plan that calls for $1.7 billion in new school funding over the next two years. The goal of the new money would be to try to provide students with their state constitutional guarantee to a sound basic education.
But Lee said that he would wait until at least Nov. 8 before issuing a court order. In the meantime, attorneys representing the school districts and parents in the long-running Leandro school funding lawsuit will draft an order they want Lee to sign that would compel lawmakers to fund the multi-billion dollar plan.
“I think everyone knows that I’m ready to pull out of the station and see what’s around the next bend,” Lee said at Monday’s court hearing. “But I’m certainly willing to take a reasonable amount of time to address and better inform the court as to specifically what you believe ought to be the case here.”
A constitutional showdown is looming between the courts and the legislature. The leaders of the Republican-controlled General Assembly say that Lee has no authority to make them provide the money.
But public-education advocacy groups, some of whom held a prayer vigil Monday, say judicial action is needed.
‘Courts must act’
The Leandro case was initially filed in 1994 by low-wealth school districts to get more state funding. The case is named after a student from Hoke County who has since graduated from college.
Over the years, the state Supreme Court has ruled that the state Constitution guarantees every child “an opportunity to receive a sound basic education” and that the state was failing to meet that obligation.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs said the courts have waited long enough for lawmakers to act.
”They (students) have no hope, no remedy without judicial intervention,” said David Hinjosa, an attorney representing parents in the lawsuit. “Courts must act to enforce the rights of schoolchildren.”
In June, Lee approved a 7-year plan agreed to by the State Board of Education, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s Administration and the plaintiffs. The $5.6 billion plan includes things such as a 5% pay raise for teachers, more funding for low-wealth school districts and expansion of the NC Pre-K program.
Lawmakers are negotiating a new budget with Cooper, but earlier versions adopted by the House and Senate provided only a small portion of the Leandro plan. This is occurring at a time when the state has a budget surplus of more than $6 billion.
At a September court hearing, Lee gave lawmakers an Oct. 18 deadline to fully fund the first two years of the Leandro plan.
Lee said Monday that he’s waited as long as he reasonably could for the state to adopt a budget. He said the Constitutional guarantee of a sound basic education “should give the court sufficient authority to enforce what everyone has agreed to is not only a reasonable and proper but necessary plan.”
Close schools to force more funding?
During Monday’s hearing, attorneys discussed the actions taken by courts in other states to force lawmakers to increase school funding.
The Washington Supreme Court held the state in contempt of court, issuing $100,000 a day fines. The fines reached $105 million before state lawmakers approved a new school funding plan.
In Kansas, a judge ordered the state’s public schools be closed until funding was increased. Lee and attorneys for the parents and school districts said they wanted to avoid this option.
“I wouldn’t want to cause them further pain in addition to what they’ve suffered since the founding of this case,” Lee said.
He said he might issue a writ of mandamus, which is a court order compelling a government official to act.
Senate leader Phil Berger called Lee “unhinged” for discussing the school closing option during the hearing.
“This is yet another example of why the founders were right to divide power among the branches of government, giving power to create law and spend money with the legislature, not an unaccountable and unelected trial judge,” Berger said in a press release Monday. “Judge Lee makes a mockery of our constitutional order with every additional hearing.”
Forcing lawmakers to comply
The General Assembly isn’t officially a party in the lawsuit. But Lee said he considers lawmakers to be defendants as well.
“There’s never been a question in my mind that they were included,” Lee said. “They have failed, neglected and refused to participate in any way in these proceedings, and that’s fine. I’m not going to force them to do that.”
Lee noted how GOP legislative leaders have cited state statute to involve themselves in other court cases on the grounds that the General Assembly is a party anytime that the state is listed as a defendant.
“Judge Lee also appears to have suggested that the legislature has always been a party to this case,” according to the press release from Berger. “That is clearly not true, as the out-of-state consultants excluded the legislature from their closed-door process in developing their multi-billion dollar spending proposal.”