Brad Wilson, chairman of the Governor’s Commission On Access To Sound Basic Education, reacts to Jan. 21, 2020 court ruling from Judge David Lee that North Carolina is not meeting its constitutional obligation to educate students.
A judge declared Tuesday that the state isn’t doing enough to ensure that North Carolina students are getting a sound basic education and ordered state leaders to “work expeditiously and without delay to take all necessary actions” to implement changes.
Superior Court Judge David Lee signed an order agreeing with the findings of an independent consultant who had recommended that the state increase education funding by $8 billion over the next eight years. The consultant found that state funding hadn’t kept up with needs, leaving students further behind academically than they were in the 1990s.
“North Carolina’s PreK-12 public education system leaves too many students behind — especially students of color and economically disadvantaged students,” Lee writes in the consent order. “As a result, thousands of students are not being prepared for full participation in the global, interconnected economy and the society in which they will live, work and engage its citizens.
Latest chapter in Leandro lawsuit
The court order is the latest chapter in the long-running Leandro school funding case that began in 1994 when school districts in five counties — Hoke, Halifax, Robeson, Vance and Cumberland — took the state to court. Leandro is the family that was originally the lead plaintiff when the lawsuit was filed.
In 1997, the state Supreme Court declared that the state constitution guarantees every child “an opportunity to receive a sound basic education.”
In 2004, the state Supreme Court held that the state’s efforts to provide a sound basic education to poor children were inadequate. The court did not prescribe specific solutions; that was left up to legislators and education leaders.
Lee was assigned the job of overseeing the case in 2016 when retired Superior Court Judge Howard Manning asked for the case to be reassigned.
Tuesday’s court order is a major step forward in the Leandro case, according to Michael D. Priddy, interim president and executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina.
“We seem to have lost the focus on traditional public schools in the past decade to pursue a path of privatization,” Priddy said in an interview Tuesday. “Today’s action by Judge Lee and the parties involved is important because it brings the focus on the children who are in the public schools today and will be in them next year and the following year.”
State not meeting constitutional standards for education
In December, Lee released a report prepared by WestEd, an independent consultant, brought in to recommend the next steps in the case. WestEd raised issues such as how, when adjusted to 2018 dollars, per-pupil spending in North Carolina has declined about 6% since 2009–10.
“The WestEd Report confirms what this Court has previously made clear: that the State Defendants have not yet ensured the provision of education that meet the required constitutional standard to all schoolchildren in North Carolina,” Lee writes.
WestEd provided compelling evidence that the state isn’t meeting its obligations to the state’s students, according to Melanie Dubis, lead attorney for the plaintiffs.
But Terry Stoops, vice president of research for the John Locke Foundation, charged that the report has “critical shortcomings and flaws.” Stoops said that while WestEd could have been the starting point for the order, Lee should have sought information from diverse perspectives as well.
“Implementing recommendations from a single report rarely produces sound recommendations,” Stoops said.
The order gives the parties in the case 60 days to present a plan to address seven components in the WestEd report, including:
State’s duty to educate students
“It is the State’s duty to implement the fiscal, programmatic, and strategic steps necessary to ensure these seven components are in place and, ultimately, to achieve the outcomes for students required by the Constitution,” Lee writes.
The order comes ahead of this year’s elections, where control of the governor’s mansion and the General Assembly are at stake. Republican legislative leaders have criticized the WestEd report while Democratic lawmakers have used it to argue the state isn’t doing enough on education.
Stoops said Lee is in danger of creating a separation of powers constitutional issue. But Dubis said the courts have every right to act when a constitutional right is being violated.
“If the state actors don’t remedy the constitutional violation — which they haven’t done after 25 years — after due deference, the court has the duty and the obligation to order a remedy,” Dubis said.