When the Leandro school funding case was filed in 1994, it sought more state funding for five poor rural districts.
But nearly three decades later the crisis caused by state neglect has spread statewide.
As North Carolina children return to the classroom, their schools are reporting a shortage of more than 4,400 teachers and overall staff vacancies that top 11,000. The COVID pandemic has added to a national teacher shortage, but the effects have been especially strong in North Carolina, where teachers were already quitting over low pay and poor treatment from the Republican-led General Assembly.
These were the pressures bearing down on North Carolina’s public schools as the state Supreme Court heard oral arguments last week in the long-running school funding case. At issue is whether the court can compel the legislature to fulfill an agreement between the Leandro plaintiffs and the state’s executive branch that would provide full funding for school needs.
Melanie Dubis, attorney for the school districts, told the seven Supreme Court justices: “The future of the children of North Carolina is now in this court’s hands.”
In return, a lawyer for the legislature’s Republican leaders made the bewildering claim that there is no legislative reluctance to give schools what they need. “This is not a contest between those who want to fund education and those who don’t,” Matthew Tilley said.
Tilley repeated the Republican lawmakers’ disingenuous contention that they have given schools “more money than ever.” But that appropriation is still $785 million short of what’s required over the next two years under a court-approved Leandro Plan. Ultimately, the plan calls for the state to increase annual school funding by $5.6 billion by 2028.
Republican lawmakers do not want to pay that amount, but they dress up their unwillingness as a constitutional issue. The legislature, they say, has the power of the purse, a power the state Constitution invests in the people’s representatives. They say they’re not going to allow an “unelected judge” appointed to oversee the Leandro case tell the legislature how much to spend.
But this is not a matter of the court dictating to the legislature. It is a matter of the court determining what the state Constitution requires. That requirement is that the General Assembly support free public schools and ensure that “equal opportunities shall be provided for all students.”
More than 800 high-poverty North Carolina schools, especially in rural areas, are not adequately funded. That has left more than 400,000 of the state’s 1.5 million public school students without an equal opportunity to realize the state Constitution’s promise, a promise the state Supreme Court has defined as a right to “a sound basic education.”
In the Leandro case, Republicans are not defying the courts in defense of the Constitution. They are defying the Constitution in defense of their unwillingness to adequately support all public schools.
The state Supreme Court’s four Democratic and three Republican members will decide the issue. If the court is consistent with its previous Leandro rulings, it will decide that the legislature must fulfill the funding plan.
If Republican lawmakers refuse, they will make clear the truth behind their hollow claims of protecting legislative powers. The truth is that they don’t care if the state’s traditional public schools are starved and inadequate. That neglect allows for tax cuts and improves the prospects for what they really want – to increase the voucher program to help children attend private and religious schools.
Public schools are institutions in which all share the costs and children and the economy reap the benefits.
The state Supreme Court should rule in favor of North Carolina honoring its values and its Constitution. Those who would have it rule otherwise are not serving their state. They are serving themselves at a lifelong cost to children whose ability to fulfill their potential depends on a sound basic education.
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