Showdown with resistant General Assembly looms as governor’s commission urges implementation of court-approved plan
Bursting with cash, the state of North Carolina owes its children ‘nothing less’ than a fully-funded pension Leandro Complete turnaround plan, the Governor’s Commission on Access to a Strong Basic Education unanimously agreed on Tuesday.
The committee made its statement in a resolution urging “state bodies, entities and agencies to take all necessary steps” to implement the plan which outlines the steps the state must take to meet its constitutional obligation to ensure students have access to an education solid base.
“We have a unique opportunity to use our state’s resources to truly transform and strengthen our public schools,” said Governor Roy Cooper, who attended the first part of the commission’s virtual meeting. “Our state has the resources to meet our constitutional obligation to our children and now is the time to do so.”
Experts say the money is there
Geoffrey Coltrane, the governor’s senior education adviser, noted that economists from the Office of State Budget and Management and the General Assembly’s Budget Research Division released a consensus forecast in June. revenue which forecasts an additional $6.5 billion in state revenue over the next biennium.
The recovery plan calls for $691 million in additional education spending this year and $1.1 billion next year.
The full plan will cost $5.6 billion in recurring K-12 funding and $3.6 million in one-time funding through 2028. The seven-year plan includes funding for staff increases in teachers, expansion of NC Pre-K programs, and additional funding for low-wealth school districts. , among other things.
“We have the resources available to implement the next two years of the plan,” Coltrane said. “We are very lucky as a state to be in a strong fiscal position.”
Commission Chairman Brad Wilson said the comprehensive, research-based plan will provide all students with the opportunity to receive a solid basic education.
“It is both a constitutional and moral imperative that our state ensure that the comprehensive recovery plan is fully implemented and that we allocate the resources necessary to achieve it,” Wilson said.
The committee meeting came as Cooper, a Democrat, and leaders of the Republican-controlled General Assembly appeared to begin working in earnest toward a budget compromise.
Cooper said the committee’s support will be essential during budget negotiations.
“We know it will be difficult because we have seen comments from some lawmakers, but what I do know is that there now seems to be a real willingness to negotiate in good faith as we move forward,” the governor said.
Cooper said he doesn’t know if the negotiations will last days or weeks. He pledged to fight for the elements of the plan.
“As we enter these new trilateral budget negotiations, I will work as hard as I can for solid investments in this plan so that we can make this a reality,” Cooper said. “We have an opportunity for transformation here. We have the funding. »
A constitutional confrontation?
The commission meeting came as the deadline set by Superior Court Justice David Lee for state leaders to say how they will pay for the recovery plan is fast approaching.
Earlier this month, Lee, the judge overseeing the landmark Leandro school finance file, indicated that he was ready to act if the General Assembly did not propose a plan to finance the recovery plan by October 15.
Lee has scheduled a hearing for Oct. 18 to discuss next steps if an agreement on such a plan has not been reached.
“I’m giving the legislative and executive one last chance before they say we’re done,” Lee said, partially paraphrasing the lyrics of a song by one of his favorite country singers, Vince Gill. “It’s not to threaten anyone. It’s to send a clear signal, clear as I know how to do; coming October 18th, if it hasn’t already been dealt with as it should be, as the court feels it should be, [the court] will certainly be ready to answer them.
Governor Cooper’s budget proposal fully funds the first two years of the recovery plan. It would allocate $725.6 million in fiscal year 2021-22 and $1.15 billion in fiscal year 2022-23.
The House and Senate proposals, however, allocate sums that fall woefully short of the nearly $1.7 billion that the plan’s architects say is needed to pay for the first two years of the plan.
The Senate proposal includes just $191.6 million in the first year and $213.7 million in the second. Meanwhile, the House proposal would allocate $370 million and $382.1 million, respectively.
the Leandro The case began more than a quarter century ago after five rural school districts in low-income counties sued the state, arguing they could not raise the tax revenue needed to provide students with an education. quality.
In 1997, the state Supreme Court issued a decision, later reconfirmed in 2004, in which it ruled that every child has the right to a “sound basic education” that includes competent and well-trained teachers and principals. and equitable access to resources.
Commissioner Rick Glazier, a former state representative and current executive director of the North Carolina Justice Center, noted that all the pieces are in place for state lawmakers to act on the recovery plan. [Note: Policy Watch is a project of the NC Justice Center.]
The state has a constitutional mandate to provide children with a solid basic education; a consent judgment was entered by the court and the state acknowledged that North Carolina was not fulfilling its constitutional mandate; a comprehensive plan to achieve constitutional minimums is in place; and there is enough money to pay for the first two years of the plan, Glazier said.
He said the state must comply with Lee’s order.
“It’s not a discretionary task; unless we believe the constitution sucks and it clearly doesn’t,” Glazier said. “It’s the law and it applies to all of us in the state, including all three branches of government. The state has a responsibility, an obligation, a judgment that it must abide by.
Leaders of the Republican-controlled General Assembly generally rejected Lee’s order and his threats to force them to pay for the turnaround plan.
“I don’t know how much clearer we can be. If Justice Lee wants to help decide how to spend state money — a role that has been the exclusive domain of the legislature since the founding of the state — then Justice Lee should run for a seat in the House or in the Senate,” said Pat Ryan, an aide. to Senate Leader Phil Berger, Raleigh told News & Observer earlier this month. “This is where the constitution directs state budget decisions to be made, not a county trial judge.”
As Policy Watch reported in July, there are several examples in other states where courts have forced reluctant legislatures to adequately fund K-12 education.
In 2015, for example, the Washington State Supreme Court found the state in contempt and fined it $100,000 a day after it failed to come up with a plan to adequately fund kindergarten education. to grade 12, as required by a 2012 court order in the case of McCleary v. Washington.
The fine came after threats of penalties if lawmakers failed to uphold what that state’s constitution called an “overriding” duty to amply fund schools in that state.
Lee said he was aware of such actions.
“I’ve read about some of the things that happened in Kansas, Washington, and some of the other states that have similar constitutional provisions, but I’m not ready to shed any light on that this morning.” , Lee said on Sept. 1. 8. “I’ll be ready to shed some light on this on October 18.”