The frightening implications of the latest Leandro school funding lawsuit do-over

Published November 2, 2023

By Rob Schofield

Imagine the following scenario: In a fit of misguided “get tough on crime” paranoia, state lawmakers enact a broad-based scheme to “stop coddling criminals.” Topping their list of priorities is a plan to make state prisons – which a popular conservative commentator has derided as “country clubs” – vastly tougher by cutting corrections funding by 50%. Lacking adequate resources, the prison system resorts to crowding six inmates in each 10-by-12-foot cell and confines them there 23 hours per day. Inmates are simply left to sleep on the floor. Hundreds die.

Or how about this one?

A cadre of white supremacists manages to assume control of the General Assembly. Driven by a viral internet conspiracy theory alleging that the state’s immigrant population has become the vanguard for a nefarious plot to “invade” the U.S., the legislature enacts a budget that ends state funding of public services – schools, public health, police, firefighting – in census blocks in which “non-native-born” residents make up 60% or more of the population. Chaos quickly ensues.

Thankfully, virtually all North Carolinians can agree that in the 21st century, such outrageous scenarios remain – even in the darkest fantasies of fanatical neo-fascist hate groups – unimaginable. While it’s true that a noisy segment of the modern political right seems disturbingly smitten with autocratic Trump pals like Russia’s Putin and Hungary’s Orban, one has to believe that the idea of American elected officials using their power of the purse to inflict such horrors would never come to pass.

However, if such situations strike you as ones that the state courts would surely declare unconstitutional and order the legislature to remedy immediately, you might want to try telling that to state Republican legislative leaders.

As recent developments in the longstanding Leandro school funding case have made clear yet again, it’s the legislature’s basic position that the courts can’t make them fund anything.

Seriously. After 30 years of repeated and detailed findings that the state is failing to provide students with the education to which they’re constitutionally entitled, the response of GOP legislative leaders is “so what – you can’t make us.”

The Leandro case stretches back to the early 1990s when a collection of school districts in five low-wealth counties — Cumberland, Hoke, Robeson, Vance and Halifax — sued the state, claiming that children were not receiving the same level of educational opportunities as students in wealthier counties.

In 1997, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling, later reconfirmed in 2004, in which it held that every child in the state has a right to a “sound basic education” that includes competent and well-trained teachers and principals and equitable access to resources.

Unfortunately, despite the duo of definitive rulings, for many years, politicians and judges of both parties beat around the bush in the Leandrocase – not directly challenging the essence of the rulings, but never getting down to the business of actually enforcing them.

The result: Hundreds of thousands of children have passed through their K-12 years while being deprived of the educational opportunities to which they were constitutionally entitled.

Eventually and thankfully, the incessant failure to produce a meaningful remedy in the case drove the plaintiffs to demand action and bring the issue to a head. Last November, the state Supreme Court belatedly did its duty by heeding those demands and setting in motion a process that would end up producing a judicial directive to lawmakers to cough up the necessary funds.

Amazingly, however, even this dramatic step produced no action. In moves that would have made mid-20th century integration resisters proud, GOP lawmakers basically told the court to pound sand, and then, after helping to elect a new conservative majority to the high court, sought a do-over.

Their argument: As stated repeatedly in court filings and public statements,“budgeting is the legislature’s exclusive prerogative.”

All of which brings us to the current remarkable state of affairs. As NC Newsline’s Greg Childress recently reported, the case will again soon come before the state Supreme Court after the Republican majority – which includes the son of Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and a former GOP senator who served under him and voted for budgets at the heart of the dispute — granted discretionary review.

The arguments before the court will likely delve into a host of legal issues and minutiae – most notably, questions related to the trial court’s jurisdiction in the case. But as is plainly obvious to anyone paying attention, what will soon be decided in the case is the fundamental question of whether the North Carolina courts can – as occurred on many other states — order the legislature to comply with the state constitution, when to do so requires spending public funds.

The bottom line: It seems almost unimaginable that any high court majority – even a group of rubber stampers like North Carolina’s current crew – would bless such an outrageous claim of unfettered legislative power and, in so doing, eviscerate 30 years’ of precedent and its own constitutional authority. But if it does, and it just might, our state will soon enter a new and very dangerous era — one that could easily give rise to some truly frightening scenarios.