The North Carolina Constitution designates the legislature as the branch of government with the power to determine how state taxpayer dollars are collected and spent. It’s a fundamental fact taught to North Carolina schoolchildren as early as third grade. Recently, children and adults alike witnessed the courts uphold this principle in the long-running Leandro v. State of North Carolina case.
The saga of Leandro – a school finance “adequacy” case about the state constitutional requirement of “the opportunity to receive a sound, basic education” – has been subject to multiple hearings, orders, and reviews during the two decades it has been sitting in a trial court. The plaintiff, Robb Leandro, is now a 40-year-old attorney at one of the most prominent law firms in North Carolina.
In April, Superior Court Judge David Lee brought the plaintiffs and defendants together for the latest hearing in the case. This time the subject was the Comprehensive Remedial Plan, an $8-billion-plus appropriations and policy roadmap based on recommendations from California-based consulting firm WestEd and Gov. Roy Cooper’s Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education.
Attorneys for the Leandro plaintiffs, in particular, hoped that Judge Lee would violate the separation of powers defined by the North Carolina Constitution and order the state legislature, which is not a party to the case, to begin funding the remedial plan. For now, however, the attempt by big-government education activists to engineer an end-run around voters and elected legislators did not work. Judge Lee wisely urged cooperation, not compulsion, in the implementation of the Leandro recommendations. At the April hearing, Lee proclaimed, “I want this to be a cooperative effort with everyone having the same goal in mind.”
Leandro is not much different than school finance lawsuits that most other states have encountered since attorneys began adopting this legal strategy in the 1970s. Attorneys representing students and families living in disadvantaged school districts seize upon vague language in a state constitution to invalidate school finance systems and compel the legislature to make amends through funding increases and programmatic changes. The courts monitor the state legislature indefinitely to ensure compliance with its orders.
Kansas, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and a handful of other states have active lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of their school funding systems. In June 2019, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled the school funding system was finally in compliance with its constitution. All it took was roughly $1 billion in additional public school funding over the last five years and the legislature’s promise to increase annual base aid by $90 million through 2023. Despite the $1 billion infusion, the state’s performance on the National Assessment of Education Progress tests shows little progress.
School finance litigation has worked like a charm for unions and their allies who cannot persuade voters to elect a sufficient number of state legislative candidates who are willing to raise taxes to accommodate their desired funding increases. As Kansas attorney John Robb told the ABA Journal, “Their economies can support increased taxes and investment in public education. But many of these states have been controlled by governors and legislatures that are unwilling to do that.” So, Robb and legions of school finance attorneys across the nation use the courts to avoid inconvenient barriers like the will of the electorate.
In the latest twist, school finance attorneys had their eye on billions of “coronavirus relief” dollars sent to states courtesy of Democratic majorities in Congress and the Biden administration. In North Carolina’s remedial plan presented to Judge Lee on the Ides of March, Leandro attorneys declared their intention to “support school districts in managing and maximizing new federal funding.” Once the flow of borrowed money from the federal government subsidies, Leandro proponents would demand that lawmakers sink their dagger deep into the heart of every North Carolinian’s paycheck to pick up the slack.
Now, Leandro attorneys must convince skeptical Republicans in the General Assembly to use their constitutionally defined authority to incorporate measures in the remedial plan into the state budget and legislation. Lawmakers should ask tough questions about a proposal that they had no role in developing. As I have pointed out elsewhere, the remedial report submitted lacks critical details about the measures purported to comply with Leandro. For example, 17 action items have no cost estimate included, while other measures simply add to our state’s education bureaucracy by investing heavily in non-classroom personnel. Lawmakers should remind the plaintiffs and defendants that improvements in daily classroom instruction are the best way to provide the opportunity for all children to receive “a sound, basic education.”