Why North Carolina’s Long-Awaited Leandro Schools Plan is a Constitutional Crisis in the Making

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

By Billy Ball

March 17, 2021

If a court-ordered plan to correct decades of educational inequality is the unstoppable force, then the NC General Assembly is the immovable object. 

It took a few decades, but North Carolina education leaders now have a plan for correcting underfunded public schools in some of the state’s poorest counties. 

The question is how the state’s lawmakers feel about it. And whether the detailed plan could trigger a showdown between NC’s judicial and legislative branches. It is unclear if the plan, or the judge’s acceptance, will have any actual effect since the GOP-controlled legislature maintains that only they have the authority to decide the budget for NC schools.

As multiple outlets have reported, the Department of Public Instruction and the State Board of Education submitted a plan this week to a state Superior Court judge in the 27-year-old Leandro case. 

Read More: COVID Killed a Local Principal. So This NC School System Vowed Not to Be the First to Reopen.

The document lays out a plan to create a system for “adequate, equitable, and predictable funding to school districts,” particularly funding in some of North Carolina’s chronically struggling rural districts. 

Cardinal & Pine reported this week how one of those Leandro districts in Halifax County is approaching a restart to in-person learning. 

The plan also calls for and suggests a means of boosting teacher recruitment in poorer districts, which have struggled to compete with the more affluent districts offering higher-dollar teacher supplements.

School systems depend on a combination of local, state and federal dollars to pay for operations and facilities. But local districts with a smaller tax base haven’t been able to put in the same amount of funding as their wealthier neighbors. Local funding is particularly crucial when state lawmakers underfund districts, as state education advocates claim.

Superior Court Judge David Lee will have to decide whether to accept the plan and schedule a hearing in the case. But Lee, regardless of how he rules in the case, is not the question mark. 

Republican state lawmakers, who control both the state House and Senate, hold most of the power in budgeting for North Carolina schools. In all likelihood, GOP leaders in the state House and Senate will assert that.

In other words, the Department of Public Instruction and State Board of Education can agree to a plan, but it is the budgeting legislators in the NC General Assembly who will control its fate. Lawmakers were critical of a 2019 court-ordered consultant’s report which found state leaders had failed to properly fund education in low-income counties. Legislators said the consultant didn’t work with them in developing the report.

What happens then if legislators refuse to fund the plan? It begs the question of whether a constitutional crisis awaits. 

This week, Halifax County Schools Superintendent Eric Cunningham said he’s hoping for an aggressive stance from the courts.


  • Billy Ball

    Billy Ball is Cardinal & Pine's senior community editor. He’s covered local, state and national politics, government, education, criminal justice, the environment and immigration in North Carolina for almost two decades, winning state, regional and national awards for his reporting and commentary.

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