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Perspective | Future of schools at center of a crossroads

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The Leandro education-rights case has reached a crossroads that puts all three branches of state government to the test. Decisions by a judge, the governor, and legislators soon will determine the extent to which North Carolina enhances the quality of education for its 1.35 million public school students over this decade.

Two recent developments converge to define and intensify the decision-making. On June 7, Superior Court Judge David Lee issued an order that the school-improvement plan he has embraced “shall be implemented in full.” On June 15, legislative and executive fiscal analysts jointly forecast an extraordinary $6.5 billion in additional General Fund revenues through the 2022-23 fiscal year.

Leandro originated with a suit filed in May 1994 by school officials, families, and students from five low-wealth counties. It led to the landmark state Supreme Court ruling in July 1997 that every child has a right to a sound basic education. There followed two decades of hearings, findings, motions, opinions — some advances but no comprehensive action.

After so many judicial proceedings have fallen short, Judge Lee appears to be attempting to bring the case to an effective resolution. He pointed out that the state has 400,000 students in high-poverty traditional public schools and state-approved charter schools. And he reiterated that “state funding for education has not kept pace with the growth and needs of the pre-K-12 student body.”

Gov. Roy Cooper has aligned his education policies and budget proposals with the court’s Leandro remedial plan. He appointed an advisory commission in developing his administration’s response. His recommended budget calls for substantial pay raises and other steps to make teaching more attractive and for expanded early childhood education.

Still, the governor will face challenges in how to move forward and to avoid the stalemate of 2019 when he vetoed the legislative budget as inadequate. In his response to the revenue projections, Cooper issued a fascinatingly imprecise two sentences: “We have enough money to pass my entire budget plus all those tax breaks with more money still remaining. We must now negotiate a responsible bipartisan budget that addresses everyone’s concerns.”

Was he referring to his own proposed tax reduction for middle- and lower-income families? Or, was he signaling he is open to the corporate income tax phase-out and other cuts favored by Republican lawmakers? If so, wouldn’t the erosion of the tax base threaten the future of the eight-year Leandro plan once this current revenue bulge ends?

In addition to pressing for another round of tax cuts, Republican legislators have agreed on overall General Fund budget targets that fall far below the robust revenue availability now projected: for 2021-22, the legislative limit is $25.7 billion, and the revenue projection is $29.7 billion; for 2022-23, the legislative limit is $26.7 billion, and the revenue projection is $30.7 billion.

The tight legislative budget targets arise from a formula based on population and inflation — a construct designed to advance a limited-government fiscal conservatism. This construct doesn’t respond to such data as the recent U.S. Census report showing that North Carolina ranked 47th in overall per-pupil spending and 48th in per-pupil spending in relation to the state’s personal income. Nor does its calculation account for the legislative analysts’ report that “North Carolina continues to experience a ‘K-shaped’ recovery, in which higher-income households have fared better than lower-income households” — meaning that the state’s recovery from the pandemic hasn’t lifted many people still in distress.

Of course, a representative democracy, with its checks and balances, is often messy and contentious, sometimes inconclusive. Further complicating a resolution to such a long-running and far-reaching education case, the state has politically divided government with a Democratic governor and Republican majorities in the House and Senate.

For North Carolina now at a crossroads moment, a basic issue comes down to: Can government work, and for whom?

Ferrel Guillory
Ferrel Guillory serves on the board of directors of EducationNC and is professor of the practice emeritus at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.