In late January, a judge issued a new ruling in a 26-year-old case on education in North Carolina, finding that the state is violating the constitution by not adequately funding public K-12 education. This ruling came shortly after the General Assembly (GA) met for an unproductive special session on health care; the legislature will not return until April. When it does return, the GA will need to address several key issues left over from its 2019 session, foremost among them being education.
With luck, this ruling will force legislators to work toward a compromise that is desperately needed. Unlike the federal government, North Carolina doesn’t shut down when a budget fails to pass, it simply keeps funding levels from the previous year. However, that means that teachers have gone half a year without raises and other increases in education funding that were included, if not in sufficient amounts, in the original budget.
North Carolina still ranks only 37th in the nation for school quality, largely because of its dismal per-student spending, 27% below the national average. The original budget failed to adequately address this funding deficit, so Governor Cooper vetoed it in June to force renegotiation. Now, however, the state is at risk of going a full year without updated funding, and both sides need to make unpleasant compromises in order to get anything passed and move the state forward.
The budget failing to pass has mainly impacted the school system, but NC State is being hit as well since pay for professors and money for construction on campus were also included. The legislature has tried to reduce the impact of the impasse by passing mini-budgets, but since education is a primary source of disagreement, this strategy has been ineffective for school funding.
This dire lack of progress is why this ruling is welcome news: it may succeed in provoking compromise where so far everything else has failed. The North Carolina Constitution explicitly gives all citizens the right to an education, and demands that the state "guard and maintain that right." That was the basis by which five counties sued the state government in 1994 over school funding and the basis by which this ruling argues funding must increase.
This case saw a similar ruling in 2004, but the judge in that case left the legislature to figure out how to remedy it. This time, the judge was a bit more forceful, signing off on an independent report which recommended an $8 billion increase over 8 years. The report stated that the state is actually further away from meeting this need than it was in 2004.
A commission created by the governor to study this issue also issued a report recently, arguing for a few strategies to improve schools. However, it’s unclear whether the legislature will act with any more urgency to pass education funding.
Education should be one of North Carolina’s highest priorities, as it sets the population and state up for a lifetime of economic success. As such, the GA has a legal and moral obligation to improve our schools. Come November, voters will have to decide whether the lawmakers trying to impede progress should return to the legislature in the next session. Attempting reelection without passing a budget could be a scary prospect for any legislator, but especially so for any causing the obstruction. Having said that, for now, legislators must not be afraid to compromise, anything else is simply playing into the hands of those who oppose new funding.