North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper pushed Tuesday for a multi-billion dollar plan to increase school funding as a state judge is considering whether to try to force lawmakers to fund the proposal.
State Superior Court Judge David Lee has given state lawmakers an Oct. 18 deadline to fully fund the next two years of a plan that calls for at least $5.6 billion in new education funding by 2028. Republican lawmakers have balked at the court order, but Cooper said major new state investments in education funding are needed now.
“We have a comprehensive plan,” Cooper told the Governor’s Commission on Access To A Sound Basic Education. “We have the support of the majority of the people of this state, and we have a court order. So now it’s time for us to work to implement that plan.”
Cooper, a Democrat, said he will seek “strong investments in this plan” as he enters budget negotiations this week with the state’s top two Republican lawmakers: Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore. Both legislators have criticized the plan and said Lee has no authority to make them provide the money.
Berger’s office tweeted Tuesday that school districts should be using their federal COVID aid first before asking state lawmakers for such a big funding increase.
“Did he (Cooper) mention the $5.6 billion in cash schools have gotten from the federal government?” Berger’s communications office tweeted. “Has anybody asked why Democrats and Judge Lee aren’t pressuring school districts to spend this money according to the California consultant plan?”
Providing a sound, basic education
The long-running Leandro school funding 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.
The Supreme Court assigned Lee to oversee the case after Judge Howard Manning retired. Manning has been critical of the idea that more money will solve the state’s education problems.
In June, Lee approved a 7-year plan agreed to by the State Board of Education, the Cooper 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.
The General Assembly isn’t officially a party in the lawsuit. But Lee has said that the legislative branch is also bound to follow the state Constitutional mandate to provide students a sound, basic education.
Lawmakers fund small portion of Leandro plan
The Leandro plan calls for $690.7 million in new education funding this year and $1.06 billion next year.
“We must increase funding for our public schools,” said Cooper, who fully funds the first two years of the plan in his budget proposal. “Don’t let anybody tell you that we can fix things without doing that. We’ve got to invest more.”
The Senate budget proposal included $191.6 million this year and $213.7 million next year for the Leandro plan. The House budget proposal had $370 million this year and $382.1 million next year.
At a court hearing earlier this month, Lee said he was “very disheartened” by the legislative budgets and said what lawmakers are providing is “woefully short of what is necessary to fund the constitutionally mandated requirement.”
Berger’s office has said Lee didn’t take into account how much the legislature has invested in the past decade as well as all the federal COVID aid that is now available to schools.
Lee said at the hearing that if lawmakers don’t act that he’ll consider what judges have done in other states to force action to increase school funding. Those actions have included fining lawmakers and holding them in contempt of court.
‘Ample existing fiscal resources’
Rick Glazier, executive director of the N.C. Justice Center and a commission member, said he’s hopeful that judicial action will get the plan implemented. Glazier said North Carolina is in a stronger position than those other states because of the consent judgment issued in the case.
“The court took action and eventually after a series of actions, the legislature implemented the plan for resources that was required in one way, shape or form,” Glazier said.
The commission unanimously passed a resolution Tuesday urging the state to implement the plan. At Glazier’s suggestion, an amendment was added to the resolution saying that the state has $7 billion in unreserved cash available and “ample existing fiscal resources.”
“We clearly can afford to do it, and I can’t really see a reason why the state should not be moving forward with this in accordance with the timeline set out in the consent judgment that was adopted by the court,” said Leslie Winner, a commission member and former executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. “The time is now. The moment is now.”
But a showdown appears to be looming with Republican lawmakers.
“The tactics and threats from the #Leandro cabal, together with their refusal to engage the only body with authority to make these decisions, have irreparably poisoned the well,” Berger’s press office tweeted Tuesday.
“Even the respected judge who handled this case for 20 years is now criticizing it.”