A bill sponsored by Democrats in the N.C. House would pump billions of additional dollars into public education over the next few years toward meeting the requirements of a new remedial agreement in the ongoing Leandro lawsuit.

House Bill 946 was assigned to the House Rules Committee, an indication that Republican leadership has no intention of bringing it up. But Democrats at a press conference on Monday, May 24 hoped that some or all elements of the bill could end up in the budget for the new biennium.

“This is the first time in the history of the case where we have a truly comprehensive piece of legislation that provides specific actions the General Assembly needs to take to comply with Leandro,” said Rep. Julie von Haefen, D-Wake, one of the bill’s primary sponsors.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the inequities that are the focus of the Leandro case, particularly for students from low-income families, students with disabilities, and English-language learners,” said Rep. Rachel Hunt, D-Mecklenburg. “If we truly want to serve our most marginalized students and prepare them for a more prosperous future, we don’t have any time to waste.”

“The urgency of this moment is now, and we have to be having this conversation at this crossroads, in this moment, to think about what the next 10, 20, even 30 years is going to look like for North Carolina,” said Rep. Ricky Hurtado, D-Alamance.

Dr. Terry Stoops, director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation, pointed out that H.B. 946 has no Republican co-sponsors, even though such a large measure would need the backing of the GOP majority to become law.

“There was no indication that they tried to appeal to the hearts and minds of their political opponents. Republicans signaled their intentions by referring the bill to the legislative netherworld, the House Rules Committee,” said Stoops.

The contents of H.B. 946 are built from multiple sources, including Gov. Roy Cooper’s proposed 2021 budget, the nearly 300-page report from the California-based consulting firm WestEd, Cooper’s Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education, and an eight-year remedial plan agreed to by both the plaintiffs and defendants in the Leandro case.

H.B. 946 funds seven priority areas, including ensuring “well-prepared, high-quality” principals and teachers in schools, new mechanisms for measuring student performance, and support for low-performing schools.

During their news conference Monday, Democrats took time away from touting the bill to take aim at two of the GOP’s education priorities this year: Expanding school choice and keeping one-sided presentations of Critical Race Theory out of public school classrooms.

“Education in North Carolina is under attack,” Rep. Raymond Smith, Jr., D-Wayne. “These bills are taking away money from public education. These bills are trying to basically dictate what is being taught in the public schools, even though we have no control over what’s being taught in private schools, but that’s where we’re sending our money.”

“Shockingly, Representative Smith slammed Republicans for advancing school choice legislation even though disadvantaged families desire more educational options and are better served by having them,” Stoops said. “School choice empowers families. The Leandro plan outlined by Democratic lawmakers would empower the public school establishment.”

 “If the goal was to convince Republican lawmakers to support House Bill 946, trashing school choice legislation sponsored by Republicans was a profoundly terrible idea,” Stoops added.

The Leandro lawsuit dates back to 1994, when five rural school districts sued the state over education funding. The N.C. Supreme Court has ruled twice since then — in 1997 and again in 2004 — that the state has a constitutional obligation to provide a “sound, basic education” to all students.

A major development came in April when N.C. Superior Court Judge David Lee — the presiding jurist in the Leandro lawsuit — said that he won’t tell lawmakers how to spend money on public education. By law, the General Assembly is the governing body with the sole authority to allocate funds, but Democrats had hoped that the judicial branch would impose funding requirements on lawmakers.