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House Democrats urge funding to comply with NC schools suit

May 24, 2021 GMT

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina can’t wait any longer on costly improvements to public education in light of court rulings that declare the state hasn’t met constitutional obligations, Democratic lawmakers and education advocates said Monday.

Sponsors of a House measure that would take the first steps to carry out a “comprehensive remedial plan” presented to a Superior Court judge in March held a news conference to urge the bill’s consideration by the Republican majority.

The remedial plan, which envisions spending over at least $5.6 billion on new education expenditures through 2028, stems from school funding litigation known as “Leandro” that began in 1994. The legislation seeks to initiate and fund programs contained in the remedial plan for at least the next two years. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has backed the remedial plan and has sought funding in budget proposals this year.

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By 2004, the state Supreme Court had declared in the Leandro litigation that the state’s children have a fundamental right to the “opportunity to receive a sound basic education,” and that North Carolina had not lived up to that mandate. Interest in compliance grew in 2019 when a consultant’s report declared little progress had been made to meet the constitutional directive. The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare educational inequities, said Rep. Rachel Hunt, a Mecklenburg County Democrat and bill sponsor.

“The urgency of this moment is now. And we have to be having this conversation at this crossroads,” Rep. Ricky Hurtado, an Alamance County Democrat and another sponsor, said during the virtual news conference.

The remedial plan presented to Judge David Lee included funding improvements to help low-income students and those with disabilities, and to hire more school support personnel. Increased pay for teachers, principals and assistant principals is included in the plan, but no dollar value for the increases has been set. The plan also focuses on increasing teacher diversity and competency and expanding prekindergarten access. Lee said last month he wouldn’t try to tell the General Assembly how much money they need to spend.

Other speakers said there was no time for more excuses about why at-risk children, including those in rural and poor settings and some immigrants, fail to receive the education they deserve, especially when the state’s coffers are flush.

“It is time for North Carolina to fulfill its promise to children,” said Patricia Beier, CEO of WAGES, an anti-poverty community action group based in Goldsboro. “Does leaving behind yet another generation of children from rural communities or from families with low wealth align with our values as a state?”

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GOP House Speaker Tim Moore said in a written statement that while spending “is the purview of the legislature rather than the courts, some of the policy suggestions in the report are worthy of consideration.”

Moore also said House Republicans expect teacher pay and K-12 funding will continue on an upward trajectory. Republicans, particularly in the Senate, have been critical of declarations that education spending has declined over the past decade in real dollars, saying instead that K-12 spending actually increased cumulatively by billions in recent years.

The House bill currently sits in a committee where bills from the minority party often get parked during the two-year session. Rep. Julie von Haefen, a Wake County Democrat and a bill sponsor, said she was hopeful that GOP lawmakers would incorporate the bill’s ideas into the chamber’s two-year budget proposal, calling it a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” especially given the state’s healthy fiscal condition.

“We cannot put it off any longer,” she added.