Protestors rally at Supreme Court as justices hear landmark abortion case

Judge in Leandro school funding case could order lawmakers to fund $1.7 billion improvement plan on Wednesday

The judge overseeing North Carolina’s long-running school funding case could order the state to hand over $1.7 billion from the state’s rainy-day account to pay for the next two years of a comprehensive education improvement plan.

Superior Court Judge David Lee could enforce the $1.7 billion plan recommended by plaintiffs in decades-old Leandro v. State of North Carolina during a court hearing Wednesday.

“To allow the State to indefinitely delay funding for a Leandro remedy when adequate revenues exist would effectively deny the existence of a constitutional right to a sound basic education and effectively render the Constitution and the Supreme Court’s Leandro decisions meaningless,” the order reads.

The state currently has a $6 billion budget surplus.

The Leandro case 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 school improvement plan is based on that report.

WestEd’s recommendations include staffing each classroom with a competent, well-trained teacher; staffing each school with a competent, well-trained principal and identifying the resources necessary to ensure that all children have an equal opportunity to obtain a sound, basic education, among others.

Under the plan proposed by the plaintiffs, the state’s public schools would receive $1.5 billion, $190 million would go to the Department of Health and Human Services and $41 million to the UNC System.

The state’s Republican leadership has questioned whether Lee has the authority to issue an order forcing the state to fund the school improvement plan.

The judge will order the spending despite the North Carolina Supreme Court ruling as recently as 2020 that “the power of the purse is the exclusive prerogative of the General Assembly,” Senate Leader Phil Berger, a Republican from Rockingham, said in a statement.

Berger referenced a report by WRAL-TV that found Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration paid most of the $2 million for the WestEd report. He contends the defendants and the plaintiffs in the case are political allies.

“They paid a group of consultants to recommend a spending plan favored by and funded by the Cooper Administration, and they found an unelected judge to order the spending over the objections of the legislature,” Berger said.

The state is without a budget as Lee considers the court order.

On Monday, State Superintendent Catherine urged lawmakers to quickly reach an agreement on a budget that includes funding to address challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I like to think there is widespread agreement that perfect cannot be the enemy of the good and while more can be done with more resources, $330 million dollars to address unfinished learning and issues stemming from COVID-19 school years is better than $0 dollars; a 3%, 5% or 10% raise for teachers is undoubtedly better than no raise; and roughly $80 million in funding to modernize school business platforms and provide cyber security to PSUs [school districts] across our state is much better than $0,” Truitt said.

The superintendent said “many crises” loom in K-12 education if a budget isn’t passed.

Licensure system and human resources management systems and other such contracts will soon expire and the burden of paying them could shift to school districts if a budget isn’t approved, Truitt said.

“While I understand that negotiations continue to play out, I want to make it clear that the Department of Public Instruction – and NC’s K-12 education system at large – is facing considerable obstacles while we wait in limbo.,” she said “If a budget is not signed, hardship will be experienced, yet again, across our state with severe implications for our students, our teachers, and our school support staff.”

She asked lawmakers to remove politics from the budget process.

“If both branches of government are unable to reach a compromise, my hope is that a budget can still be put forth for a vote,” Truitt said. “Should this vote come to fruition, I would hope that no pressure be applied to legislators in voting for or against it, as they should be allowed to represent their constituents rather than feel pressured to support a political party.”

What’s in—and out—of Biden’s $1.75 trillion social spending and climate bill

Crunch time in Raleigh with money, schools, and power all on the table

Here in the last week of October, almost four months after a new state budget was supposed to have been in place and with multiple plot-lines coming to a head, North Carolina’s government is like a somewhat rickety aircraft stressed to the limits amid a thunderstorm.

Not only that, but there’s fighting in the cockpit!

  • Republican chiefs in the General Assembly and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper seem to be in the final stages of negotiating a budget that Cooper – for a change – won’t feel obliged to veto.
  • Figuring in the talks has been a possible broadening of the state’s Medicaid program, as the governor to his credit long has sought and his legislative foes long have resisted. From Cooper’s standpoint, simply getting to the point of considering Medicaid expansion that would improve health care access for many thousands of low-income citizens has to represent progress, compared to legislators’ flat-out refusals in recent years.
  • In tandem with the budget dispute is the latest chapter in the state’s long struggle over funding for public schools – in particular, those schools serving high proportions of economically challenged families and communities.
  • A judge who oversees the state’s response to a court ruling that aimed to bolster    schools in high-poverty districts is threatening to force the legislature’s hand if it doesn’t include more public education funds in the pending budget deal.
  • Legislators already accuse Superior Court Judge David Lee of overstepping his authority, so we could be on the brink of a massive collision between branches of government. What’s at stake is nothing less than the ability of many thousands of students to get the “sound basic” education to which the state Supreme Court has said they’re constitutionally entitled.
  • As if the turbulence over the budget and its school finance provisions weren’t serious enough, the legislature is moving toward decisions that could profoundly affect the make-up of the state’s congressional delegation and the General Assembly itself for years to come. As required so that every vote carries more or less equal weight, new congressional and legislative voting districts are being drawn in accord with population growth and shifts revealed by the 2020 census.
  • Here’s the question: Will Republicans seeking to shape districts in their candidates’ favor resort to the kind of gerrymandering that courts repeatedly have found to be unconstitutional in discriminating against African-American voters and in some instances against voters who happen to be Democrats? Voting rights advocates, including groups such as the N.C. Council of Churches, hope to see the process end with all voters given a fair chance to influence the choice of their elected leaders and thus the policies that have an inside track toward adoption.

Budget conflicts

Gov. Cooper in 2019 vetoed the legislature’s last stab at passing a budget according to the usual two-year schedule, and his Democratic allies in the state House and Senate joined in sufficient numbers to block Republican attempts at a veto override.

The deal-breakers for the governor boiled down to low-ball expenditures for public schools, including teacher pay; tax cuts that continued to hamper the state’s ability to invest in a range of programs; and a refusal to expand Medicaid despite the anticipated health and economic benefits.

Since then, the pandemic has put North Carolina through a tragic stress test. Gaps between our affluent, metro-area counties and their rural, small-town counterparts – gaps in health care, job opportunities, school quality – have been magnified. A new openness to Medicaid expansion on the part of some Republican legislators – encouraged by GOP officials in several mountain counties hammered by the virus and loss of jobs – could be an understandable response.

But if expansion still doesn’t have enough support to be included in the budget that’s now in final talks, as it may well not, at least advocates could push for an agreement to have it fully considered as a stand-alone measure. There can be no credible objections to accepting a huge new infusion of federal Medicaid funds for which the state would qualify, or to improving health-care access for people who now typically can’t afford even the routine care that many among us take for granted.

Fairer for teachers? Read more

Gov. Roy Cooper vetoes bill that restricts certain racial concepts from being taught in North Carolina’s schools

Gov. Roy Cooper

As expected, Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed House Bill 324, the controversial legislation critics contend would restrict what students could be taught about the nation’s racial history.

In a statement, Cooper, a Democrat, said the Republican-backed bill has distracted lawmakers this legislative session from the serious work of supporting educators and students during a global pandemic that has challenged educators and set students back academically.

“The legislature should be focused on supporting teachers, helping students recover lost learning, and investing in our public schools,” Cooper said in a statement. “Instead, this bill pushes calculated, conspiracy-laden politics into public education.”

HB 324 includes 13 concepts teachers would be prohibited from “promoting” in North Carolina classrooms. They include the concept that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex and an “individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive.”

The bill also requires educators to post reading lists, workshops, training and curriculum on school websites a month in advance and to notify the NC Department of Public Instruction. Educators would have also been required to post guest speakers and diversity trainers on school websites.

Senate leader Phil Berger, (R-Rockingham) said he is confused by the governor’s veto. He said the bill placed no restrictions on what educators could teach about America’s history.

“It’s perplexing that Gov. Cooper would veto a bill that affirms the public school system’s role to teach students the full truth about our state’s sometimes ugly past,” Berger said. “His invented excuse is so plainly refuted by the text of the bill that I question whether he even read it.”

Berger added: “More broadly, Democrats’ choice to oppose a bill saying schools can’t force kids to believe one race is superior to another really shows how far off the rails the mainstream Democratic Party has gone.”

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, a Republican from Greensboro, called Cooper’s remarks accompanying the veto “lazy.”

“This bill was the first step in combating Critical Race Theory [CRT] being forced upon our children in NC public schools,” the state’s first Black lieutenant governor said in a statement.

As Policy Watch has reported, CRT is an academic discipline that examines how American racism has shaped law and public policy. It emerged in the legal academy in the 1980s as an offshoot of critical legal studies.

Educators and others opposed to HB 324 say the obscure academic discipline isn’t taught in K-12 classrooms.

Robinson said Friday that a report he recently released “irrefutably established” that teachers are indoctrinating students with CRT. He said Cooper’s remarks are a “disservice to the teachers, students, and parents across our state who have voiced their concerns.”

Robinson is referring to the findings of his “Fairness and Accountability in the Classroom for Teachers and Students” (F.A.C.T.S.) task force he created to give students, teachers and parents a tool to report perceived cases of bias or indoctrination in public schools.

It was formed after the State Board of Education adopted new social studies standards that Robinson opposed and believed are laced with concepts linked to CRT.

Policy Watch previously reported that critics of the task force, such as veteran Mecklenburg County schoolteacher Justin Parmenter, found that many of the submissions to the F.A.C.T.S. website were highly critical of its purpose. Supporters of the effort revealed troubling sentiments about race, civic life and religion, Parmenter reported. These include allegations that three years of public education turned one parents’ daughter into a “full-blown socialist.” Another wrote: “Their [sic] are to [sic] many ethnic groups in this country and to [sic] few months in a year to designate a month to only one group of people. By removing Black History Month from the curriculum and replace and allowing children to focus on their own ethnic background should solve this particular problem.”

HB 324 was approved last month on a 61-41 party-line vote. Republicans voted in favor of the bill. Democrats voted against it.

The ACLU of North Carolina called Cooper’s veto a victory for the state’s 1.5 million students.

“This was the only acceptable outcome for legislation that was a threat to our students and their ability to learn and become informed, conscientious community members,” said Chantal Stevens, executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina.

Stevens said HB 324 is part of a national effort by conservatives to “silence Critical Race Theory, diversity curricula, and discussions about racism, sexism, and inequity.”

“We urge lawmakers to uphold the Governor’s veto and protect students’ rights to inclusive education and teachers’ rights to do their jobs thoughtfully,” she said.

Rodney D. Pierce, who teaches social studies at Red Oak Middle School in Battleboro, has been an outspoken critic of HB 324.

Pierce said teachers are grateful for the governor’s veto.

“We tire of the efforts of the General Assembly’s leadership to legislate the classroom when they should be upholding the state constitutional obligation to lead with Leandro,” Pierce said, who wonders if elements of the bill will turn up in the compromise budget negotiated by the House and Senate.

The state’s Leandro school funding case mentioned by Pierce began more than a quarter-century ago after five rural school districts in low-wealth counties sued the state, arguing they couldn’t raise the tax revenue needed to provide students with 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.

This week, Superior Court Judge David Lee gave state lawmakers until Oct. 15 to fully fund a school improvement plan that calls for $5.6 billion in new K-12 funding by 2028. An Oct. 18 hearing has been set to discuss the next steps if an agreement has not been reached to pay for the plan.

Durham activist Paul Scott said HB 324 is tantamount to a “rebel yell” to mobilize the state’s conservative base.

“Although it was packaged as an attack against Socialist indoctrination, conservative leaders tried to appeal to those who, as the late historian Dr. John Henrik Clarke might say, don’t know Karl Marx from Groucho Marx,” Scott said.