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Democrats, educators say lawmakers have a ‘moral obligation’ to fund the Leandro school improvement plan

Judge David Lee

Fully funding the Leandro school improvement plan is a moral obligation, Senate Democrats and educators said Tuesday.

The message directed at the Republican-led General Assembly comes a day before Superior Court Judge David Lee is expected to sign a court order compelling the state to hand over $1.7 billion from its rainy-day account to pay for a comprehensive education improvement plan.

Gladys Robinson

State Sen. Gladys Robinson, a Democrat from Guilford County, said lawmakers have failed the children of North Carolina by not adequately funding public education.

“This case [Leandro] and the actions that the court will take this week are about more than our constitutional obligations; it is a moral obligation,” Robinson said.

Judge Lee is overseeing the state’s landmark school funding case – Leandro v. State of North Carolina – that was brought by five school districts in low-wealth counties that argued their districts did not have enough money to provide children a quality education.

In 1997, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling, later reconfirmed in 2004, in which it held that every child has a right to a “sound basic education” that includes competent and well-trained teachers and principals and equitable access to resources.

Lee hired WestEd, an independent consultant to develop recommendations to improve North Carolina’s public schools. The public school improvement plan before the court is largely based on WestEd’s report. The recommendations include staffing each classroom with a competent, well-trained teacher; staffing each school with a competent, well-trained principal and identifying the resources to ensure all children have an equal opportunity to obtain a sound, basic education, among others.

State Republicans don’t believe Lee has the authority to compel the legislature to fund the improvement plan.

“The legislature’s main objection is that the judiciary does not have the legal authority to decide how taxpayer dollars are spent and what policies get enacted into law. The legislature also disagrees with some of the budget and policy items the judge will attempt to order into law,” State Senate Leader Phil Berger, a Republican from Rockingham, said in a Leandro explainer posted on his web page.

But State Attorney General Josh Stein issued a Memorandum of Law on behalf of the state affirming the court’s authority to issue such an order.

“If there exists a conflict between legislation and the Constitution, it is acknowledged that the Court ‘must determine the rights and liabilities or duties of the litigants before it in accordance with the Constitution, because the Constitution is the superior rule of law in that situation,’ ” Stein wrote, citing Green v. Eure (1975).

Sen. Jay Chaudhuri

Senator Jay Chaudhuri, a Democrat from Wake County, said the state’s Republican leadership has “thumbed its nose” at the court and the judiciary.

“Senator [Phil] Berger has argued that Judge Lee’s motion is a violation of the separation of powers, but the failure to comply with Judge Lee’s order is the real constitutional violation that separates our school children from the real chance to achieve the American dream,” Chaudhuri said.

The judiciary has a duty to determine whether the executive or legislative branches of government have run afoul of the constitution, Chaudhuri said.

“We continue to deny and delay our school children a chance to receive a sound basic education, a missed opportunity that has been going on now for more than two decades and has denied a generation of our school children that chance already,” he said.

The state currently has the resources to easily fund the next two years of the school improvement plan, Chaudhuri added, noting a budget surplus of more than $8 billion.

Sen. Sarah Crawford, a Democrat from Wake County, said the shortage of school bus drivers and teachers are evidence the state has not made adequate investments in public education. Crumbling infrastructure and poor ventilation systems also have been brought to light by the pandemic, she said.

“Education is where we deliver on the promise of equality as a nation and a state,” Crawford said. “The Leandro plan gives us a solid roadmap so that every child has access to the education that they, not only need but deserve,” Crawford said.

Brian Proffitt, vice president of the NC Association of Educators, said educators haven’t felt appreciated the past decade under GOP control of the state legislature.

“Our jobs have always been the toughest on the planet, but the last decade, however, has been brutal,” said Proffitt, a high school history teacher. “The impact of underfunding, the privatization agenda of certain politicians in our state legislature finally hit a tipping point.”

The result, Proffitt said, has been more educators leaving the profession.

He shared a story about a Currituck County teacher who paid out-of-pocket to furnish a mobile classroom. The teacher was also forced to clean the bathroom and classroom.

Proffitt said poor working conditions force educators to make tough decisions about whether to stay or go.

“That is not a choice our educators should have to make, and I know from listening to stories every day that this frustration is fairly universal across the state right now and it doesn’t have to be,” Proffitt said.

He took aim at lawmakers who want to cut taxes on corporations and wealthy citizens but balk at funding the Leandro plan.

“Instead of prioritizing the bank accounts of the wealthy, the leadership of the General Assembly should and can fund the future of our state,” Proffitt said.

Robinson also criticized the GOP for favoring tax cuts over schools.

“In 2011, Republicans began to dismantle the legacy of education by prioritizing corporate tax [cuts] over sustainable funding for our North Carolina public education system,” Robinson said.

The state’s public education legacy began with former governor Terry Sanford and included his Quality Education Program, the Governor’s School of North Carolina, UNC School of the Arts and the state’s community college system, she said.

It continued under former governor Jim Hunt who established the state’s Smart Start program and created the NC School of Science and Mathematics, Robinson added.

“And now, under Republican leadership in the General Assembly, North Carolina is 39th in per-pupil spending, which is where we were before Gov. Terry Sanford enacted the Quality Education Program,” she said.

In addition, the average teacher salary is $9,000 less than the national average and the state has $13 billion in outstanding school construction needs, Robinson said.

The evidence is clear that the state has not lived up to its constitutional obligation to provide the opportunity for a sound basic education for every child, she said.

“North Carolina is in a strong financial position to meet these obligations and to perhaps to do even more to provide funding that will ensure a sound basic education for every child, especially those that are left behind, low-income and minority children,” Robinson said.

Despite Democrats criticism of tax cuts, for Republicans they are a source of pride.

Berger posted a news clip from Site Selection Magazine that ranks the state #1 for Business Climate.

“One of North Carolina’s competitive advantages for several years has been its 2.5% corporate tax rate — the lowest of the 44 states that levy such a tax,” the article said. Berger’s post did not mention the fact that North Carolina has enjoyed the Number One ranking in Site Selection multiple times, including during years in which the corporate tax rate was significantly higher.

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