The judge in the ongoing Leandro school funding case has signed an order that attempts to compel the General Assembly to fund the components of the Comprehensive Remedial Plan agreed to by both the defendants and plaintiffs in the case last year.

The move by Superior Court Judge David Lee appears to be a reversal from remarks he made during a hearing in April, when he pledged to not tell lawmakers how to spend money on public education.

“If the State fails to implement actions described in the Comprehensive Remedial Plan … it will then be the duty of this Court to enter a judgment declaring relief and such other relief as needed to correct the wrong,” Judge Lee’s latest order states.

Republican lawmakers were quick to denounce Lee’s declaration.

“A court has no more authority to direct the legislature to spend money or enact policy than the legislature does to direct a trial judge to decide a case,” Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga, says in a statement. “If Judge Lee wants a say in education policy, he can run for the state legislature. That is the only way his opinions will have any weight.”

In his order, Lee praised House Bill 946 and Gov. Roy Cooper’s budget, both of which would fund the first two years of the eight-year remedial plan.

The contents of H.B. 946 are built from multiple sources, including 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 the Comprehensive Remedial Plan itself.

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.

By law, the General Assembly is the governing body with the sole authority to allocate money. Even so, Democrats have long hoped the judicial branch would impose funding requirements on lawmakers.

“Judge Lee is setting the stage for a confrontation with the General Assembly that will test one of the foundations of our state government: the separation of powers,” said Dr. Terry Stoops, director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation.

“Judge Lee and the Leandro plaintiffs and defendants are free to appear before the members of the General Assembly to make their case for full funding of the Comprehensive Remedial Plan. And the members of the General Assembly are free to accept or reject their request based on the budgeting authority reserved to the legislative branch in the N.C. Constitution.”

Republican lawmakers have made overtures to Lee to involve him in the process. In February 2020, Ballard invited the judge to speak to members of the Senate Education Committee, an invitation he declined. 

According to Lee’s order, the next steps will require lawmakers to submit a progress report on “fulfilling the terms and conditions” of the order by Aug 6.

The Leandro lawsuit dates 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.

“The first judge assigned to oversee compliance with the Leandro ruling, Howard Manning, pointed out repeatedly that throwing more money at public schools would not guarantee that children receive a sound, basic education,” noted Stoops. “Judge Lee’s endorsement of a plan would require the legislature to add billions of additional taxpayer dollars to the state education budget belies the wisdom of his former colleague.”