North Carolina judge backs education spending plan

A North Carolina judge agreed Tuesday to sign an order that calls for $427 million in additional education spending this year to carry out longstanding court rulings on public school funding.

Superior Court Judge David Lee backed the spending plan developed by the State Board of Education and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration, The News & Observer of Raleigh reported.

The package, which includes teacher pay raises, more funding for at-risk students and expanded early childhood education programs, would need funding from the General Assembly to happen. A judge can’t force lawmakers to spend the money, however.

The judge is in charge of carrying out responses to state Supreme Court rulings during the 1990s and 2000s related to the state constitution’s mandate for public education.

The Supreme Court ruled in the case known as “Leandro” — the name of an original plaintiff — that the state’s children have a fundamental right to the “opportunity to receive a sound basic education,” and that the state had not lived up to that requirement.

Equipped with a consultant’s report, Lee ruled in January that the state was further behind in terms of providing students with a sound basic education.

“We are constitutionally mandated to move these issues forward, and I’m as committed as ever to complying with that constitutional mandate without anybody getting in the way,” Lee said Tuesday.

Sen. Deanna Ballard, a Watauga County Republican and Senate Education Committee chairwoman, said Tuesday she was disappointed Lee signed the order after she said he had declined an invitation to speak with Republican lawmakers. Ballard said Republicans have increased per-student funding but blamed Gov. Cooper for vetoing budget bills last year that would have raised teacher pay further and expanded targeted education programs.

The General Assembly reconvenes Wednesday for a brief session to distribute more COVID-19 federal relief funds.

Lee will get an update in December on the compliance with the court order. State officials are developing an eight-year plan to comply with the rulings.

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