By David Hinojosa and Elizabeth Haddix
Seventeen years after the North Carolina Supreme Court affirmed a trial court’s ruling that the State had failed to ensure a “sound basic education” for all students, on November 10, Wake County Superior Court Judge David Lee entered an order requiring the State to fund a comprehensive remedial plan (CRP) that will improve teaching and learning, especially for students in at-risk circumstances.
The order in the case, commonly referred to as Leandro v. State of North Carolina, requires the State Treasurer, State Comptroller and State Budget Director to transfer roughly $1.75 billion in unappropriated funds to agencies responsible for implementing the first two years of the remedial plan and comes after the General Assembly failed to pass a budget that pays for the plan’s implementation. The order is stayed for thirty days.
Plaintiffs in the case include low-property wealth, rural school districts and plaintiff-intervenor Charlotte Mecklenburg Branch of the State NAACP chapter, represented by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
The case was originally filed in 1994. In 1997, the North Carolina Supreme Court held that the state constitution’s “general and uniform” clause requires the State to ensure that all of North Carolina’s children have the opportunity to receive a “sound, basic education.” Following a trial on remand, the superior court ruled that the State had failed to provide a sound basic education. In 2004, the state supreme court affirmed that ruling and ordered the State to remedy the violation.
After several compliance hearings between 2004-2017, in 2018, the superior court retained a consultant to analyze the state’s education system and make recommendations to ensure a “sound basic education” for all students. Many of those recommendations were folded into the State’s proposed multi-year plan, which was also agreed to by the plaintiffs and plaintiff-intervenor. In June 2021, the court approved the State’s CRP and ordered the State to seek and secure funding. Despite a surplus in excess of $8 billion in the State’s general fund, the General Assembly failed to appropriate funds for the first two years of the CRP.
The November 2021 order stressed that the court’s inherent and equitable powers to remedy constitutional wrongs provide a basis for directing the transfer of unappropriated funds. Judge Lee further concluded that based on a series of constitutional provisions requiring the State to provide for and fund an adequate education, “as a matter of constitutional law, the Court is authorized to ensure a continuing appropriation from the State Treasury to effectuate the people’s right to a sound basic education. When the General Assembly fulfills its constitutional role through the normal (statutory) budget process, there is no need for judicial intervention to effectuate the constitutional right, although as discussed above…, this Court certainly has the authority to exercise such.”
The General Assembly’s leadership has strongly opposed the order, but no action has been taken to date.
David Hinojosa (email@example.com) is the Director of the Educational Opportunities Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and Elizabeth Haddix (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Managing Attorney of the Lawyers’ Committee North Carolina Regional Office. They represent the Leandro plaintiff-intervenors Charlotte Mecklenburg Branch of the NAACP, parents and students. For more information, please see Lawyers’ Committee’s press release.
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