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NORTH CAROLINA COURT ORDERS STATE TO “SEEK AND SECURE” FUNDING TO REMEDY CONSTITUTIONAL VIOLATIONS

By Wendy Lecker

June 17, 2021

In a major development in the North Carolina school funding case, Leandro v. State, Wake County Judge David Lee has issued an order directing the State to implement all facets of a Comprehensive Plan to remedy the constitutional violation found by the State Supreme Court, “including without limitation seeking and securing such funding and resources as are needed to implement” the Plan “in a sustainable manner.” The order also made clear that if the State fails to implement the Plan, the court will take further steps to “correct the wrong.”

“Judge Lee’s order is welcome news for public school children across North Carolina,” said Mark Dorosin of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which represents plaintiff-intervenors, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg NAACP, in the Leandro case. “The order recognizes Governor Cooper has identified readily available funds needed to implement the remedial plan that the State agrees is necessary to provide a sound basic education. It’s now time for the Legislature to respond to that constitutional call and the State’s decades-long liability to the children of North Carolina.”

The backdrop for Judge Lee’s order is the North Carolina Supreme Court’s ruling in 2004 that the failure of the State to provide adequate school funding violated the constitutional rights of North Carolina students. The Court ordered the State to develop a comprehensive remedy, with the trial court under Judge Lee to oversee implementation. In 2015 and again in 2018, the trial court found the State’s measures were insufficient to remedy the constitutional deficiencies.

The parties then jointly identified a consultant, the national research firm WestEd, to assess the status of compliance and to issue detailed recommendations. In January 2020, Judge Lee signed a consent order adopting the detailed recommendations made by WestEd, including:

  1. Adequate and equitable funding;
  2. Qualified, well-prepared and diverse teaching staff;
  3. Qualified and well-prepared principals;
  4. High-quality preschool;
  5. Initiatives for at-risk students;
  6. Assessments and accountability reforms;
  7. Assistance for low-performing and high-poverty schools; and
  8. Continued court oversight.

Judge Lee ordered the State to work expeditiously to create a system of reforms to meet the Leandro mandate and directed the parties to provide a joint status report to outline the specific actions to address the areas in need of corrective action.

In June 2020, the parties submitted the status report, which set forth a plan for actions to be taken in 2020-21 (the Year One Plan). The parties acknowledged that the pandemic exacerbated the Leandro inequities, and that the one-time federal infusion of funds would not address the historic and unmet needs of underserved students.

In September 2020, Judge Lee ordered the State to implement the Year One Plan and to develop a Comprehensive Remedial Plan to satisfy all the State’s Leandro obligations by 2028. In December 2020, the State reported that it failed to fully implement the Year One Plan. In March 2021, the State submitted the Comprehensive Remedial Plan.

After an April status conference, Judge Lee issued his June 7 order. The order notes that those items not accomplished in the Year One Plan were rolled into the Comprehensive Plan but emphasized that the delays make it more difficult for the State to meet its constitutional obligations in a timely manner. Stressing the need to move quickly, the order states:

[T]housands of students are not being prepared for full participation in the global, interconnected economy and the society in which they live, work and engage as citizens. The costs to those students, individually, and to the State are considerable and if left unattended will result in a North Carolina that does not meet its vast potential.

In his order, Judge Lee also notes that the Governor’s budget and bills pending in both the House and Senate would, if enacted, fully fund the state aid increases required to implement the first two years of the Comprehensive Remedial Plan, totaling $585 million for FY22 and $1 billion for FY23.

The order contains the following provisions:

  1. The Comprehensive Remedial Plan is necessary to delivering a sound basic education to all students;
  2. The Comprehensive Remedial Plan must be implemented in a timely fashion;
  3. The State must “inform and engage its actors, agencies, divisions, and/or departments as necessary to ensure the State’s compliance with this Order,” including seeking and securing the funding needed to implement the Plan;
  4. The State defendants must submit a progress report in August 2021, to which the plaintiffs may respond;
  5. The Court will hold hearing in September to address any issues in the progress report;
  6. Beginning in October 2021, the State must provide the court with quarterly status reports describing “the progress they have made toward achieving each of the benchmarks identified in the Comprehensive Remedial Plan, including an explanation and identification of specific barriers to implementing each benchmark not achieved in a timely fashion.”

The order also makes clear that the COVID-19 pandemic does not absolve the State of fulfilling its constitutional obligations to students. If anything, this crisis highlights the urgency of ensuring all North Carolina’s students receive the opportunity for an education that prepares them to function productively in an increasingly complex world.

 

Related Story:

NORTH CAROLINA COURT ORDERS SWEEPING REFORMS AFTER REPORT FINDS STATE FAILING TO PROVIDE A SOUND BASIC EDUCATION

 

Press Contact:

Sharon Krengel
Policy and Outreach Director
skrengel@edlawcenter.org
973-624-1815, x 24