Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional comments from Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union.
The long-running Leandro case hasn’t led to a constitutional bombshell — as some experts feared — but, after years of waiting, presiding Judge David Lee has finally set the stage for action.
Lee issued a 34-page order Tuesday, Jan. 21, during a meeting with the parties in the decades-old case. Leandro, a court battle that started in 1994, cemented the state’s constitutional obligation to provide a sound, basic education to all North Carolina students. For years, the case remained in limbo. Now, after the public release of a court-ordered report from research nonprofit WestEd, Lee is finally moving things forward. Parties in Leandro should use WestEd’s findings to make a plan that will meet short-, mid-, and long-term education goals, the order says.
In its findings, WestEd recommended spending $8 billion more on education over the next eight years. Constitutional experts, such as Jeanette Doran, president of N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law, expressed concern over a constitutional overreach if the court mandated the General Assembly spend more on public education.
Lee sidestepped those fears. Instead, his order gave basic instructions for how to move forward without crossing constitutional lines.
Lee gives lawyers 60 days to submit plans on how to implement short-term goals. That includes revising the state’s school funding formula to ensure students with the greatest needs are getting the most resources, as well as granting districts greater flexibility in spending decisions. The phase also calls for a boost in overall investment in public education over time.
Lee’s order outlines seven areas the defendants need to implement “expeditiously” and “without delay.” Subjects include teacher and principal development and providing a system of early education for all at-risk students.
The parties agreed to move forward with the report’s findings.
“WestEd has made a skeleton. Our job is to put meat on the bones,” said Amar Majmundar, an attorney representing the state.
“We are at a historic point where all parties agree that historic and current data that systemic work is necessary to provide the Leandro right to all children,” said Melanie Dubis, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
Lee’s uncritical approval of the WestEd report was disappointing, said Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies.
“While the judge, plaintiffs, and defendants in the case may be satisfied with the report, the court should ask independent researchers and policymakers to evaluate it,” Stoops said.
The General Assembly isn’t a party to the case, but any recommendations calling for increased spending or statutory changes would require legislative involvement. Lee’s order acknowledges as much.
“The Court … is hopeful that the parties, with the help of the Governor, can obtain the support necessary from the General Assembly and other public institutions to implement and sustain the necessary changes to the State’s education system and deliver the constitutional guarantee of Leandro to every child in the State,” Lee wrote.
Lee’s desire for teamwork is reassuring, as the report falls outside a judge’s power, said John Locke Foundation Senior Political Analyst Mitch Kokai.
“If he continues along that path, then the WestEd report and its recommendations will serve an appropriate role: WestEd’s findings simply will inform lawmakers during the next round of state budget debates,“ Kokai said.
But an order mandating the General Assembly spend more on education could spark a constitutional crisis, some experts say.
Such an order clearly would fall outside a judge’s power, Kokai said. Lee can’t compel lawmakers to spend anything.
It’s uncertain how far Lee will go in making sure the state complies with Leandro.
“I’m bound by the laws of this case. I believe that means I’m bound by what the Supreme Court said back in 1997, that if somebody doesn’t do it then the court has to do it, ill-equipped though it may be,” Lee said. “I think I would be dodging my constitutional duty if I didn’t push this and do what needs to be done. I’m not afraid to do that.”
Republican lawmakers recently raised concerns over their exclusion regarding research for WestEd’s report.
The only lawmaker consulted was Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, Susan Mundry, a WestEd representative, told Carolina Journal. Horn is the House Education Appropriations chair.
Horn told CJ he had no “conscious role” in developing the WestEd report.
“If an informal conversation over dinner or a casual conversation with colleagues is considered ‘consulted,’ then yes, I was consulted,” Horn said. “But, in my view, the word consulted rings more of a serious and in depth conversation focused on a subject. I have no recollection of nor do I recall ever being ‘consulted.’”
“If the courts order the General Assembly to pour billions of dollars into public education, then lawmakers have a responsibility to hear multiple perspectives on the costs and benefits of doing so,” Stoops said.