Commentary, Education

How the governor’s budget proposal would advance a sound basic education

Despite fits and starts over the years, North Carolina lawmakers have consistently failed to provide children with the sound basic education that they are owed under our state constitution. Since the Leandro court case was filed in 1994, the courts have consistently found the state falling short of meeting this basic obligation.

The December 2019 publication of the Leandro consultant’s report marked an important turning point by offering lawmakers a clear pathway to delivering children the education they are owed. The report outlines a series of investments and reforms needed to deliver a constitutionally-compliant public school system by the 2027-28 school year.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed things. While our state constitution makes no exceptions for delivering basic rights during a pandemic, the Leandro parties agreed to a short-term plan for the 20-21 school year that was dramatically pared down from the recommendations of the Leandro consultant’s report. Whereas the consultant’s report recommended increasing early childhood and public school budgets by $1 billion this year, the short-term action plan called for only $431 million in new spending this year.

With the release of Gov. Cooper’s 20-21 budget proposal, we have our first look at the extent to which lawmakers are prioritizing the delivery of a sound basic education against the other challenges faced across the state. The table below compares the short-term plan submitted to the courts in June against the governor’s proposed budget.

From a total dollar standpoint, the governor’s plan falls a bit short of meeting the funding goals outlined in the short-term action plan.

For those hoping the state will make progress towards meeting its constitutional obligations under Leandro this year, there are two additional concerns with the governor’s plan.

First, all appropriations under the governor’s plan are nonrecurring. The money Gov. Cooper would provide to public schools would go away at the end of the school year. That means that the plan – even if adopted by the General Assembly – would represent just a one-year bandage rather than a sustainable, long-term investment. While the additional funding under the governor’s plan would certainly help for this school year, it will not help long-term planning. Nonrecurring would leave us back at step zero next year.

Second, the governor’s plan uses two revenue sources to fund its Leandro activities: state General Fund dollars and federal Coronavirus Relief Funds (CRF). It is unclear whether federal guidelines would permit using this revenue source for the actions detailed under the governor’s budget. These funds must be used for expenses incurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, providing a sound basic education is a long-term obligation independent of the COVID-19 pandemic. There is substantial room for interpretation here, but it seems hard to argue that something like “expanding support and mentoring for first-year teachers” is a new expense incurred due to the pandemic.

Ultimately, the governor’s proposal would do little to help the state make real progress towards providing every child in this state with the education they are owed under our state constitution. Largely, this is because the General Assembly’s poor tax and budget have left the state with little money and glaring needs. Partly, this is because the governor is unwilling to propose a tax increase during a recession. All told, it leaves lawmakers with few good options. Regardless, meeting our constitutional obligations requires sustained, long-term investments, not short-term band-aids.

With the General Assembly all but certain not to provide such investment, it appears increasingly unlikely the state will make meaningful progress toward meeting its constitutional obligations under Leandro this year.

Kris Nordstrom is a Senior Policy Analyst with the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education & Law Project.

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