NC’s Leandro school funding court case: History and today5 min read
North Carolina State Superior Court Judge David Lee ordered the state on Wednesday to turn over $1.7 billion to increase funding for public education — over the objections of Republican lawmakers.
This is all part of the decades-long Leandro school funding court battle.
Here are the basics of what you need to know about the Leandro case.
What is the Leandro case?
The Leandro case started in 1994, when school districts in five low-wealth North Carolina counties (Hoke, Halifax, Robeson, Vance and Cumberland) and families sued the state, claiming that children were not receiving the same level of educational opportunities as students in higher-income counties.
In 1997, the state Supreme Court agreed, and ruled that the North Carolina Constitution guarantees every child in the state “an opportunity receive a sound basic education.” The court said that the state was failing to meet that standard.
In 2004, the state Supreme Court said the state’s efforts to provide a “sound basic education” to poor children were inadequate.
Who is the Leandro case named for?
The case is named after Robb Leandro, a student from Raeford, in Hoke County.
Leandro was in 8th grade when the lawsuit was filed. Because he was a minor at the time, his mother, Kathy, filed the suit on his behalf. The Leandro family was the lead plaintiff in the original lawsuit.
Leandro went on to study at Duke University for his undergraduate degree, where he played football for four years. He graduated in 2001. Leandro received his law degree from Vanderbilt University in 2006, and is now a partner at Parker Poe, a regional law firm in the Southeast that represented the plaintiffs in the original Leandro lawsuit. He works in the firm’s Raleigh office and specializes in health care law.
Why is Leandro back in the news now?
Because the courts — along with educational coalitions, N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper and N.C. Democrats — say the state is still not doing enough to uphold the Leandro ruling. They say that a new plan, developed by educational consultants, would help provide better educational opportunities for students.
▪ In a January 2020 court order, State Superior Court Judge David Lee, who took over the Leandro case in 2016 when Judge Howard Manning retired, said the state is further behind in providing a “sound basic education” than it was even in the 1990s, and that the state must “work expeditiously and without delay to take all necessary actions.”
▪ This year, a proposed budget by Gov. Cooper, along with House Bill 946 filed by Democratic lawmakers, would fund the first two years of an action plan to improve education opportunities for children in low-wealth districts.
▪ In June 2021, Judge Lee signed a court order approving a 7-year plan agreed to by the State Board of Education, the Cooper Administration and the Leandro plaintiffs that calls for at least $5.6 billion in new education funding through 2028 (the $1.7 billion at issue right now would fund the first two years of this $5.6 billion plan).
▪ In September 2021, Lee gave state lawmakers a deadline to either fund the Leandro plan or he’d intervene. Similar legal action has been used by courts in other states to increase public education funding.
▪ In October 2021, Lee asked plaintiffs to submit a proposed court order on how the court could get the plan funded. The hearing occurred the same day a group of religious leaders held a prayer vigil calling on the plan to be fully funded.
What would the proposed spending pay for?
For the “comprehensive remedial plan,” the proposed legislation funds items such as a 5% teacher pay raise, principal pay raises and additional state funding to expand North Carolina’s Pre-K program and hire more teacher assistants, school nurses, school social workers and school counselors.
The $1.7 billion would fund the first two years of the plan.
Plaintiffs in the Leandro case propose that $1.5 billion be given to the state Department of Public Instruction, $190 million to the state Department of Health and Human Services and $41 million to the UNC System.
Does NC have the money to fund the Leandro plan?
North Carolina is currently sitting on a budget surplus of more than $6 billion, The News & Observer has previously reported.
Who is opposing the school funding?
State Republicans are objecting to the court order, saying only lawmakers have the constitutional authority to appropriate money.
The Republican-controlled General Assembly says Judge Lee has no authority to make them provide the funding.
Terry Stoops, director of the John Locke Foundation’s Center For Effective Education, said Lee’s order is putting the state in line for a constitutional crisis.
The Leandro plaintiffs dispute this, saying the state Constitution does empower the courts to act when the other branches refuse to carry out their constitutional obligations.
What happens next? Can Republicans fight the ruling?
The money will not likely be transferred anytime soon as the leaders of the GOP-controlled General Assembly are expected to fight the ruling.
GOP lawmakers may also attempt to impeach Lee, who they’ve called a “rogue judge.”
It would only require a simple majority in the House to impeach Lee, but it would take a two-thirds majority in the Senate to convict him and remove him from office. But Lee would be barred from continuing on the case until the impeachment trial was held by the Senate.
What happens if the General Assembly refuses to pay?
Lee wrote in his June 2021 court order: “If the State fails to implement the actions described in the Comprehensive Remedial Plan … it will then be the duty of this Court to enter a judgment granting declaratory relief and such other relief as needed to correct the wrong.”
That means the state budget director, state controller and state treasurer could be required to turn over $1.7 billion to fund the next two years of the new education plan.
This story was originally published November 10, 2021 3:55 PM.