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North Carolina education spending conflict leads to constitutional debate


North Carolina education spending conflict leads to constitutional debate

Republicans and Democrats in North Carolina are at odd ends over an impending order that would force the state to spend more on education.

Superior Court Judge David Lee is poised to sign an order Wednesday that would require the state to allocate nearly $2 billion more in K-12 funding to meet its constitutional obligation to provide a “sound, basic education” to all students.

State Republicans contend the judge does not have the authority to dictate how taxpayers’ money is spent and the power lies with the state Legislature. Democrats say the funding is critical to address the state’s education needs.

“North Carolina is in a strong financial position, however, to meet these obligations and, 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,” Sen. Gladys Robinson, D-Guilford, said Tuesday during a news briefing. “This case and the actions that the court will take this week are about more than our constitutional obligations. It is a moral obligation.”

In Leandro v. the State of North Carolina, plaintiffs claimed students in poor school districts were not receiving the same educational resources as wealthy school districts. They argued the state was not doing what it took to ensure it met its constitutional requirement. The court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered a plan be drafted to meet the state’s obligation. The plan called for $5.6 billion in new K-12 funding by 2028.

Republican appropriation leaders did not include the additional funding required under the Leandro plan in current spending plans. Plaintiffs now have asked the judge to order the Legislature to allocate $1.7 billion over the biennium from the state’s unallocated balance.

Republicans said if Lee orders the state to pay the money, it will violate North Carolina’s Constitution. It states: “The power of the purse is the exclusive prerogative of the General Assembly, with the origin of the appropriations clause dating back to the time that the original state constitution was ratified in 1776.”

Attorney General Josh Stein’s office said Monday in a court filing, however, the constitutional requirement to provide education equity is enough to authorize the court to order the allocation of the funds.

“As a separate and coequal branch of government, this court has inherent authority to order that the state abide by the constitution’s commands to meet its constitutional obligations,” attorneys for the state wrote. “In doing so, the Court’s Order will enable the State to meet its obligations to students, while also avoiding encroachment upon the proper role of the legislature.”

Senate Republicans slammed Stein’s filing Tuesday, arguing it would override recent court rulings that uphold the Legislature’s spending authority.

“Attorney General Stein’s ‘defense’ is yet more evidence that this circus is all about enacting Gov. (Roy) Cooper’s preferred spending plan over the objections of the Legislature, the only branch legally authorized to make spending decisions,” said Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga, who co-chairs the Senate Education Committee.

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