Raleigh, N.C. — North Carolina is no longer the model for education nationwide that it once was, advocates for an education equity plan for the state said Wednesday.
Lawmakers, nonprofit leaders, church leaders, former students and others gathered inside and outside the Legislative Building on Jones Street to call for more than $1.5 billion in the next two years to implement the so-called Leandro remedial action plan, named for the 27-year-old lawsuit and the court-approved plan to resolve the case. They said schools are underfunded now, after decades of leadership under both political parties.
Superior Court Judge W. David Lee ordered the plan, totaling more than $5.6 billion across eight years, earlier this year and has directed the state to prove it’s complied with it by next Monday.
While some on Wednesday said the state’s lawmakers should be held in contempt of court for failing to appropriate the funding for that plan, lawmakers in attendance also said no one thing will hold up their approval of the budget for this fiscal year and next. Lawmakers and Gov. Roy Cooper have not successfully implemented a new budget since 2018.
“There would not be a single issue that stops the governor or Republican leadership” from passing a budget, House Minority Leader Robert Reives said, adding that lawmakers can’t ignore the many other needs of children.
“If they’re going to be educated, they need to be healthy. … There’s a ton of things we’ve got to do,” said Reives, D-Chatham.
But Democratic lawmakers have largely supported the Leandro action plan, while Republicans have balked at the research behind it and the cost of implementing it. That’s led to a court-ordered plan with no immediate likelihood of funding.
“It is beyond the pale that we have legislators in this building who took an oath to this state to say, ‘Nah, we’re not beholden to the constitution,’” said Renee Sekel, the founder of Save our Schools NC. “I don’t care what they think; I care what they took an oath to do.”
“We have a global state, but we’re not preparing our students for that global future,” said Marcus Bass, executive director of advocacy group Advance Carolina, who has taught in a disadvantaged school. “When you look at research and science and commerce here in North Carolina, we’re not preparing our students to live and work in the heart of the hubs that we’re building.”
In interviews last month with WRAL News, Republican House and Senate leaders said a court could not compel them to put anything in the budget. While they didn’t say they disagreed with any specific parts of the plan, they said they weren’t sure more money, to the extent the plan calls for, would greatly improve North Carolina’s education. Instead, they’ve touted efforts to improve reading instruction already underway.
“They’ve taken this report … from [consultant] WestEd, this California group that has put together this report claiming that they know best how to fund North Carolina schools,” said Moore, R-Cleveland. “Well, I believe we know best how to fund North Carolina schools by North Carolina legislators.”
House Democrats filed a bill in May that would have appropriated $1.5 billion toward the early years of the Leandro plan, and the governor proposed a similar amount. Current annual education spending from state coffers tops $10 billion.
The state House’s two-year proposed budget includes about a third of what’s required in the Leandro plan – $615 million – while the Senate budget includes about an eighth – $236 million. Both budget proposals include additional education spending outside of the Leandro plan, such as an increase in vouchers for private schools.
Rep. Julie von Haefen, D-Wake, says picking and choosing what to fund won’t work.
“This is not a menu of options. If we really want ot make significant changes, transformational changes, this is the plan. It’s comprehensive; it has to be implemented in full,” von Haefen said.
“Leandro is the baseline, the floor, of what we need to provide constitutionally for these children,” Reives said. “We’re going to be providing an education, [so] why not make that the best education that we can give to all of our citizens, because that benefits everybody.”
The state has a surplus of nearly $8 billion. But other plans and proposed tax cuts totaling $2.5 billion in the next two years would reduce the state’s budget flexibility.
Lawmakers and the governor are negotiating a final budget proposal. With no final deal in sight, observers predict the judge will likely grant the state an extension a deal is reached.
North Carolina’s spends far less per students than all but a handful of states. Federal data from a 2018 survey showed North Carolina is the ninth lowest in spending per students, just $9500 per student. Spending in South Carolina tops $11,000 and in Virginia, it’s well over $12,000.
Reives noted insufficient education spending under multiple governors, both Democratic and Republican. It’s been happening for 30 years, he said, but high-quality education before then helped working-class students like him succeed.
“The only reason I’m standing here today is because, at one point, we were doing this right,” he said.
WRAL Capitol Bureau Chief Laura Leslie contributed to this report.