News: CJ Exclusives

Is the $427 million Leandro action plan dead on arrival in the General Assembly? 

Judge David Lee, the overseer of the Leandro case, approved a plan Tuesday, Sept. 1, calling for millions more in education spending to meet North Carolina’s constitutional obligation to provide a sound, basic education to every child. 

But the General Assembly, whose constitutional duty it is to appropriate money, wasn’t involved in the decision. 

During a virtual hearing Tuesday, Lee said he would sign a consent order that included an action plan amounting to $427 million. It’s the latest development in the long-running education funding lawsuit. The parties in the case, which include the State Board of Education and the state of North Carolina, made the plan in June as a first step ensuring all students have access to a quality education. 

A chunk of the money — about $235 million — would go toward teacher raises. The rest would support disadvantaged students, low-performing schools, early education, and college and career readiness initiatives. 

While the plan considers budget constraints, it says the state should commit “to meeting the actions in a future fiscal year of the eventual eight-year plan.”

After making some minor changes to reporting deadlines, Lee said he would sign off on the plan. 

“I hope everyone can keep at the floor the concept that we are constitutionally mandated to move these issues forward, and I’m as committed as ever to complying with that constitutional mandate without anybody getting in the way,” Lee said.

The parties were probably disappointed that Judge Lee didn’t order the General Assembly to spend an additional $427 million in mostly federal money to comply with the first year of the action plan, said Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation.

“Those kinds of decisions should be made by elected officials using constitutionally established means of deliberation and lawmaking, rather than by an unelected judge doing the bidding of the Leandro parties,” Stoops said. 

The General Assembly writes the checks. If the parties in the Leandro case want to implement their plan, they’ll need the Republican-led General Assembly to agree. 

That doesn’t seem likely. 

Shortly after the Leandro hearing, Senate Republicans published a news release criticizing Lee for his approach to the Leandro case. 

“It’s so disappointing that the new Leandro judge, David Lee, wouldn’t even speak to legislators about this issue before issuing a consent order,” Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga, said in the news release. 

In February, Ballard invited Lee to share his policy perspective with education committee members. Lee declined. 

Republican lawmakers have made it clear they prefer the previous judge who oversaw the case, Judge Howard Manning. Manning presided over Leandro until October 2016. 

In a WRAL interview, Manning denounced the idea that more money would solve the state’s education challenges. He emphasized the importance of making sure young children were proficient in reading and basic math before moving on to higher grade levels. More money wouldn’t necessarily accomplish this, the retired judge said. 

Ballard promoted the interview in the news release. 

The order doesn’t directly force the General Assembly to appropriate any money, but it does call on the parties to the case to secure the cooperation and assistance from the legislature to implement the plan. 

The consent order acknowledges that the legislature has a role, but neither Lee nor the parties have made any serious attempts to consult lawmakers, Stoops said.

The consent order draws from a more than 300-page-report from WestEd, a California-based education consulting firm. In 2017, the parties agreed to hire an outside consultant to draft recommendations for how the state could meet the Leandro mandate. They selected WestEd, which delivered a report to Lee in July, 2019. 

Legislators weren’t consulted.

“The WestEd report is little more than a hodgepodge of recommendations designed to satisfy politicians, technocrats, and other elites that want to spend billions more on North Carolina public schools,” Stoops said. 

In a news conference Tuesday, Republican leaders expressed their frustration. 

“We were not part of that conversation from the beginning,” Ballard said. “As far as the action plan is concerned, there are a few items we have already taken steps to do in this General Assembly.

The action plan calls for a 5% salary increase for teachers. Republicans offered a 4.9% teacher pay raise and a $1,000 bonus, but Gov. Roy Cooper and Democratic legislators turned down the offer, Ballard said. 

“It’s fair to say that we are well on our way financially with the amount of dollars that this General Assembly. … has continued to invest into our K-12 education and early childhood, but we will continue to determine what we can do and get the governor to join us with in this effort,” Ballard said.