North Carolina Judge Could Order State Government to Redirect $1.7B to Fund Education

A North Carolina judge might order the state government to put a heavy investment into its education system.

Superior Court Judge David Lee has scheduled a meeting to determine the best course of action regarding potential mismanagement of the state's Leandro rulings. In 2004, justices found that the state had not appropriately adhered to its constitution due to inequalities that violated every children's right to receive "a sound basic education."

Lee had been monitoring the state's response to this ruling. During this meeting, he could order lawmakers to invest $1.7 billion into the state's education system, an unprecedented amount of money.

"This case and the actions that the court will take this week are about more than our constitutional obligations. It is a moral obligation," explained Senator Gladys Robinson in a news conference. "Republican legislators may say that they do not have to fund Leandro, but they should want to fund it because it is the right thing to do."

The potential $1.7 billion would be on top of a massive remedial plan that Lee had already approved. This plan, which aims for at least $5.6 billion invested in the system by 2028, was made with the input of Democratic Governor Roy Cooper and the State Board of Education. The additional $1.7 billion would be used for immediate problems that need to be addressed by mid-2023.

The already approved plan would help improve the educations of low-income and disabled students. It will also increase the pay of teachers, principals, and assistant principals and ensure that teachers are more fully qualified for their positions.

Lee's meeting to potentially approve the additional funding is scheduled for November 10.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

NC Classroom
Superior Court Judge David Lee has scheduled a meeting in which he could order North Carolina lawmakers to invest $1.7 billion into the state's education system. Above, 11th grade students learn about the D-Day invasion at Normandy from social sciences teacher Kasey Turcol during an advanced placement history class at Crossroads FLEX school in Cary, North Carolina, on May 21, 2019. AP Photo/Gerry Broome

Lee could direct state government to move money from its flush accounts—without General Assembly approval—to agencies that would carry out two years of a remedial spending plan he endorsed. Republicans controlling the legislature said he can't do that because only lawmakers can appropriate taxpayer dollars.

Leandro was the last name of an original plaintiff.

The Senate and House approved competing state budgets that covered a small fraction of that amount. Lee warned in June that it would be his duty to "correct the wrong" if the two-year items weren't carried out. Weekslong negotiations between legislators and Cooper on a consensus budget appear nearly over.

Three weeks ago, Lee asked lawyers for local school boards and children that remain Leandro plaintiffs for a draft order to spend the $1.7 billion.

Their proposal, filed November 1, would tell state finance leaders to move money to the Department of Public Instruction, University of North Carolina system and the Department of Health and Human Services. That order, however, would be delayed for 30 days from Lee's signature date, to give legislators time to appeal Lee's ruling. But then Lee could draw up a different order.

Attorney General Josh Stein's office, which is representing the state as defendants in court, wrote Lee late Monday saying any order wouldn't require new legislative action or new revenues because the constitution already demands the elements of a sound, basic education.

"The General Assembly's ongoing failure to heed that constitutional command leaves it to this court to give force to it," Senior Deputy Attorney General Amar Majmundar wrote on behalf of Stein, a Democrat.

The advice from Stein's office would overturn a state Supreme Court decision last year that declared "the power of the purse is the exclusive prerogative of the General Assembly" going back to the state's original constitution from 1776, according to Republican State Senator Deanna Ballard of Watauga County.

"Stein's 'defense' is yet more evidence that this circus is all about enacting Gov. Cooper's preferred spending plan over the objections of the legislature," Ballard said in a news release.

Robinson and other Senate Democrats held an online news conference Tuesday as the liberal Progress NC Action committee released a report accumulating complaints from parents, educators and others about K-12 school shortcomings the group say could be addressed with more funding. The criticisms included low pay, teacher and bus driver shortages, a lack of supplies and dilapidated buildings.

Allies with Progress NC blame Republican tax cuts for anemic education spending over the past decade, but GOP leaders say their critics ignore marked spending increases that could have been larger had Cooper not vetoed the 2019 budget and a separate teacher pay bill.

NC School Buses
The potential $1.7 billion for education would be on top of a massive remedial plan that Superior Court Judge David Lee had already approved. Parked school buss sit in a lot during the COVID-19 pandemic on April 21, 2020, in Charlotte, North Carolina. Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images