NC Supreme Court orders state to fund Leandro Plan
The latest development in the Leandro v. The state of North Carolina court case came last week when the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that state officials can be ordered to transfer the funds necessary to fully fund a sound basic education to the state’s k-12 public schools.
“It’s our constitutional duty to ensure every child has access to a sound basic education,” said Governor Roy Cooper. “As the NC Supreme Court has affirmed today, we must do more for our students all across North Carolina.”
The Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling from 2021 requiring the state to fund the Leandro Plan, an eight-year remedial plan with specific investments to ensure all children have access to a sound basic education.
The initial order of $1.75 billion to fund the plan was lowered to $785 million by a trial judge following the passage of the 2021 state budget.
“Today’s ruling reaffirming that the General Assembly must fund the Leandro education plan is a victory for everyone who believes all students, regardless of their background, deserve to receive a fully funded education that prepares them for the future,” said North Carolina Association of Educators President Tamika Walker Kelly in a statement.
The Leandro case, after almost 30 years, remains one of the most prominent education policy issues in North Carolina. In 1994, five low-wealth school districts filed a lawsuit against the state arguing that their schools didn’t have the funding needed to provide an equal education for their public school children. In 1997 and again in 2004, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the state has a constitutional obligation to ensure all children have access to a sound basic education.
In 2018, a judge ordered WestEd, an independent educational consultant to recommend ways the state could comply with the court rulings. Parties to the case used their findings to create what became known as the Leandro Plan, which laid out the need for $5 billion in funding over an eight-year period.
In March of this year, the Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments to the case again after the passage of the new state budget, and Judge Michael Robinson ruled that the state was responsible for funding the comprehensive remedial plan, but could not be ordered to do so. This decision led to the case coming before the court yet again in August 2022, to determine whether the court could compel the state to fund the plan.
“Since the start of the Leandro legal battle, an entire generation of students in North Carolina has lost out on what it means to have a fully funded education,” said Walker Kelly. “Our legislators have done us all a disservice by not providing adequate resources for our schools to be successful and it is up to us to hold them accountable to the constitution of our state.”
Writing for the majority, Justice Robin Hudson made it clear that the court was done waiting for the North Carolina General Assembly to fulfill its duty to the public school system.
“In the eighteen years since [Leandro II, Hoke County Board of Education v. State], despite some steps forward and back, the foundational basis for the ruling of Leandro II has remained unchanged: today, as in 2004, far too many North Carolina schoolchildren, especially those historically marginalized, are not afforded their constitutional right to the opportunity to a sound basic education,” wrote Hudson. “As foreshadowed in Leandro II, the State has proven — for an entire generation — either unable or unwilling to fulfill its constitutional duty. Now, this Court must determine whether that duty is a binding obligation or an unenforceable suggestion. We hold the former: the State may not indefinitely violate the constitutional rights of North Carolina school children without consequence.”
The 4-3 decision was made along party lines with Democratic justices in the majority. With two seats up for election this year, the makeup of the court could soon change.
Rep. Mark Pless (R-Haywood) told The Smoky Mountain News he does not believe the court can compel legislators to fund the Leandro Plan.
“In my research, it can’t be funded the way they’re trying to fund it by the constitution of North Carolina,” said Pless. “It has to be done by a bill. A ruling from the court system can’t free up the money because the representatives — Senate, House and of course the governor — that has to be done by a public bill. And I honestly believe, if we go around that, if you get a budget that you disagree with, all you have to do is go get a judge that says ‘hey, you should have gotten this amount of money, $500 million here, a billion dollars there.’ All they have to do is get a judge or someone to be sympathetic to the situation. We can’t allow that to happen.”
The federal government provides around 8% of funding for public schools, states are responsible for about 46% and local governments about 45%. In North Carolina, average per pupil spending is just over $9,000 while the national average is $12,519. North Carolina ranks about 34th in the nation for teacher pay. Teachers in the state make an average of $37,049; the national average is $54,150.
“We see every day the disparities in this state between affluent and marginalized communities and we know that today’s ruling takes us one step closer to allowing every student to grow and thrive in their public schools.”
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Are we to take the unattributed quote at the end of this article as the last word on the matter? Mark Pless is right. Despite the ruling, the judicial branch does not have jurisdiction over disbursement of state funds. It has to come from the legislature. If they can’t pass it after 20 years, maybe there is something wrong with the proposal. The remedies in this situation are not clear, but unfortunately a court-mandated spending package is not supported by the state constitution, nor should it be. The ruling remains an unenforceable suggestion, because the court cannot hold the entire state legislature liable for failure to comply. Or would they only jail those representatives who fail to vote the way they were ordered? We have to think about how these things play out in the long term. This is a dangerous precedent to set.