North Carolina lawmakers are shorting public education by hundreds of millions of dollars — but can’t be forced to spend the money, a state court ruled Tuesday.
At issue is the decades-old “Leandro” lawsuit, which since 1994 has bounced back and forth in the court system, arguing that the state government has not done enough to fulfill the North Carolina Constitution’s guarantee of a basic education for every child.
Tuesday’s ruling found that lawmakers are nearly $800 million short of fully funding a $1.75 billion plan they were ordered to put into place.
However, the ruling also backed up a recent N.C. Court of Appeals ruling, from December, that said courts can’t spend the state’s money on their own. So unless the N.C. Supreme Court makes a different decision, it’s now up to Republican legislative leaders to decide whether to fund all, some or none of that missing funding.
When the legislature returns to Raleigh next month, lawmakers will have the opportunity to update the budget before the 2022 elections when they will all be up for reelection.
When the Court of Appeals made its decision in December, the news site EdNC previously reported, the judges wrote that voters can try to force the legislature to follow court orders to spend more on education, even if the courts can’t.
“The Separation of Powers Clause prevents the courts from stepping into the shoes of the other branches of government and assuming their constitutional duties,” the Court of Appeals ruled. “We have pronounced our judgment. If the other branches of government still ignore it, the remedy lies not with the courts, but at the ballot box.”
Republican leaders have repeatedly said they believe they’re spending enough on education, despite the court rulings to the contrary.
How we got here
Last year a trial court judge in the Leandro case ruled that state lawmakers needed to spend $1.75 billion on a two-year plan to shore up public schools and universities.
He also controversially ordered that the money be given directly to the various agencies in need of the money, without the legislature first signing off. At the time the state had gone for several years without a new budget, due to disagreements between the Republican-controlled legislature and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
But shortly after that November 2021 ruling, state lawmakers finally did pass a budget that Cooper agreed to sign. Then the next month came the ruling from the Court of Appeals that stopped the plan to force the money to be spent.
So the lawsuit was reviewed again, with the lingering questions of whether the legislature had done enough to fund education, and if not, what to do about it.
The new judge overseeing the Leandro case, Michael Robinson, concluded that lawmakers had spent a little more than half of the $1.75 billion they had been ordered to. They’re still short by $785 million, his ruling Tuesday found.
He noted that the state’s savings are more than sufficient to cover that amount, with $8 billion in reserve plus an expected $4.25 billion in unspent funds by the summer of 2023. But he can’t use the court’s power to force the unspent money to be spent, he said, citing the Court of Appeals ruling from December that the previous judge’s attempt to do that was “constitutionally impermissible.”
It wasn’t immediately clear if any of the numerous parties in the lawsuit would appeal Tuesday’s decision.
Complicating matters is the fact that no one in government can even agree on how much money the state is spending on education.
The Republican-controlled legislature told the court what it believes it’s spending on the plan. But the state budget office, which is run by Cooper’s administration, implied that the legislature was inflating certain numbers. The two sides differ over issues like whether to count money that didn’t come from the state but rather from a federal COVID-19 stimulus package.
Robinson examined the numbers the legislature gave, as well as the numbers the Cooper administration gave, and decided they were both wrong. He wrote that “neither of the parties has fully and accurately presented the amount.”
Doing his own accounting, he reached the conclusion that the legislature had funded about $970 million of the $1.75 billion, leaving around $785 million still unaccounted for.
This story was originally published April 27, 2022 12:06 PM.