Opinion: Daily Journal

Leandro parties demand $427 million increase in education spending

Melanie Dubis, the attorney representing the Leandro plaintiffs, argues before Superior Court Judge David Lee in February 2018. (CJ photo by Lindsay Marchello)
Melanie Dubis, the attorney representing the Leandro plaintiffs, argues before Superior Court Judge David Lee in February 2018. (CJ photo by Lindsay Marchello)

This week, the plaintiffs and the defendants in the Leandro v. North Carolina case submitted their action plan to Superior Court Judge David Lee, who was appointed four years ago to oversee the state’s compliance with the 26-year-old case.

The Joint Report To The Court On Sound Basic Education For All: Fiscal Year 2021 Action Plan For North Carolina outlines measures the parties believe would move North Carolina closer providing all children an “opportunity to receive a sound basic education.” Full implementation would require the N.C. General Assembly to add nearly $427 million to the $9.7 billion that the state spent on public education last school year. Here is the cost breakdown from the report:

  1. A Qualified and Well-Prepared Teacher in Every Classroom: $237,700,000
  2. A Qualified and Well-Prepared Principal in Every School: $0
  3. A Finance System that Provides Adequate, Equitable, and Efficient Resources: $144,876,975
  4. An Assessment and Accountability System that Reliably Assesses Multiple Measures of Student Performance: $0
  5. An Assistance and Turnaround Function that Provides Necessary Support to Low- Performing Schools and Districts: $4,375,000
  6. A System of Early Education that Provides Access to High-Quality Prekindergarten and Other Early Childhood Learning Opportunities: $35,650,000
  7. Alignment of High School to Postsecondary and Career Expectations for All Students: $4,388,635

I may be going out on a limb, but I think numbers two and four will be most appealing to lawmakers.

The measures detailed in the action plan are based on recommendations outlined by California-based consultant WestEd. In 2017, the plaintiffs and defendants agreed to allow an independent consultant to advise Lee on how to proceed, and the parties selected WestEd to write an action plan. WestEd delivered its 300-plus page report, Sound Basic Education for All: An Action Plan for North Carolina, to Lee last July. The contents of the report were released to the public the following December, and a month later, Lee issued a 34-page order affirming the findings of a report that contained errors, omissions, and subpar analyses.

To their credit, the parties acknowledged the challenges of increasing the education budget in the current economic environment. Statewide lockdowns shuttered countless businesses, put hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians out of work, tripled the state’s unemployment rate, and created an estimated $4.2 billion budget shortfall over the next two years. In the action plan, the plaintiffs and defendants write, “If due to budget constraints the State is not able to fulfill these actions in Fiscal Year 2021, then the State commits to meeting these actions in a future fiscal year of the eventual eight-year Plan.” It’s an unexpected concession. State lawmakers reluctant to pour vast amounts of additional taxpayer dollars into public school coffers should simply declare that budget constraints are always a reasonable justification to defer spending.

A cadre of special interest groups, progressive activists, academics, politicians, and union-supported enterprises want Judge Lee to compel the Republican-led General Assembly to spend billions more over the next eight years. As part of that effort, a new education coalition called Communities for the Education of Every Child NC held an introductory press conference this week. In contrast to the plaintiffs and defendants, the group called on lawmakers “to immediately and aggressively comply with its constitutional duty to provide a sound basic education to all children” regardless of economic conditions.

In fact, the group proclaims that two bills filed by Democratic legislators, House Bill 1129 and House Bill 1130, represent “acceptable down payments” toward meeting the Leandro mandate. These bills would require more than $141 million in additional state spending and would modify numerous state education statutes. These bills include changes not mentioned in the WestEd report or the action plan, such as the elimination of the state’s private school voucher program for low-income children. CEECNC concluded, “Anything short of these efforts is unconstitutional, immoral, and unacceptable.”

Of course, Lee gets the final word. I doubt he will reject the action plan, given that it is aligned with the consecrated WestEd report. Will he order the General Assembly to add $427 million to next year’s education budget? If he does, how will General Assembly leadership respond? Will they defend their constitutional duty to direct taxpayer dollars or wave the white flag, reasoning that the political cost is too great?

Dr. Terry Stoops is vice president for research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation.