A Quick Summary of the Issue

“Leandro” is the name of the lead plaintiff in Leandro v. State of North Carolina. This 1994 lawsuit centers on the state’s constitutional duty to provide a “sound basic education” to all public school students regardless of their circumstances. 

The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled on the case in 1997 and subsequently remanded the case to the trial court. Since then, the three trial court judges who served in this capacity conducted hearings, published reports, issued orders, and performed other activities needed to monitor the state’s compliance with the ruling. 

The case returned to the State Supreme Court in 2004 to consider issues related to at-risk students and pre-kindergarten education. The case will return to the State Supreme Court a third time on August 31, 2022, to allow plaintiffs, defendants, and intervenors to present arguments related to the forced transfer of state funds for a wide variety of programs and initiatives.

Leandro Timeline

Taken from the North Carolina Institute for Constitutional Law resource found here

May 1994: Parents and students in low-wealth rural counties filed Leandro v. State, alleging students in these counties were being denied their right to an adequate education under the North Carolina Constitution. The Complaint (the document which starts a lawsuit) is filed in Halifax County.

Various local school boards for higher wealth school systems join the lawsuit as plaintiffs. The North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and students and parents also join the lawsuit.

November 1994: Defendants file a motion to dismiss the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, lack of personal jurisdiction, and for failure to state a claim.

February 1995: Defendants’ motion to dismiss is denied. Defendants appeal.

1996: The North Carolina Court of Appeals reverses the trial court and dismisses the case. The Court of Appeals concluded that the constitution guarantees equal access to the existing system of education but does not have a qualitative standard.

1997: The North Carolina Supreme Court partially overturned the Court of Appeals and permitted the case to proceed to trial, declaring that all students in the state are entitled to “the opportunity to receive a sound basic education.”

October 1997: The case is reassigned to Superior Court Judge Howard Manning.

January-October 1998: Plaintiffs amend their complaint. Plaintiffs amend their complaint again. Plaintiff-Intervenors (various boards of education) amend their complaint. At the behest of the trial court, the plaintiffs amended the complaint to add paragraph 74(a) raising issues about Pre-K services for the first time in the case.

September 1999: The trial beings. The trial judge spilt the issues two parts (one for low wealth districts and the other for wealthier districts) and conducted a trial limited only to the conditions in Hoke County. The trial was conducted periodically over 14 months.

April 2002: The last part of the trial court’s 4-part decision is entered. In total, the trial judge’s decision was over 400 pages long.

2004: The Supreme Court stated that because the trial was limited to the conditions in Hoke County, “our consideration of this case is properly limited to the issues relating in Hoke County as raised at trial.” For this reason, the Supreme Court held that its mandates did not extend beyond Hoke County and trials on the conditions in other counties would be necessary.

2004-2016: Despite the Supreme Court’s opinion remanding the case for trials for the districts other than Hoke County, no such trial occurred. The trial court and the parties moved to the “remedial phase,” seeking enforcement of the prior decision. The trial judge held a series of status conferences, and the Defendants produced several reports and updates. Over time, these reports and updates began to address progress across North Carolina, not just Hoke County (the district for which the court had conducted a trial).

October 2016: North Carolina Chief Justice Mark Martin appointed W. David Lee, a retired Union County judge, to preside over the case. After that time, the Defendants and Plaintiffs began to seek consent orders agreed to by both sides of the case. These consent orders purported to require the State to fund various programs, even though funding requires legislative approval and the legislature was not then a party to the lawsuit.

July 2017: The Plaintiff parties, including the Plaintiff-Intervenor, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Branch of the NAACP, and the Defendants State jointly asked superior court to appoint an independent expert consultant to develop recommendations for the State to comply with the three Leandro elements for a sound basic education.

February 2018: The Plaintiffs and the NC Department of Justice asked the trial court to appoint WestEd, a progressive education research group from San Francisco, CA, to conduct a remedial study and prepare recommendations to remedy alleged ongoing constitutional violations. The DOJ and the Plaintiffs ask that the court instruct WestEd to develop recommendations not only for Hoke County but for “every public school in North Carolina.” The parties asked that WestEd

work with the Governor’s Commission on Access to a sound Basic Education. They did not ask the WestEd work with the General Assembly.

June 2019: The trial court and the parties with their lawyers receive a report from consultants at WestEd. Judge Lee does not make the report recommendations public. The report is sealed by the court.

January 2020: The West Ed report is made public, and the trial court signed a consent order agreed to by the parties. The order directed the State to create a plan to implement the WestEd reports’ recommendations.

March 2021: The DOJ submits the “Comprehensive Remedial Plan” to the trial court. For the most part, it regurgitates WestEd’s report and echoes the Governor’s budget proposal. The Plan includes 146 proposed action items to be implemented across the State, even though the only trial in this case was limited to at-risk children in Hoke County. The Plan, created by executive branch agencies, repeatedly acknowledge that any proposal would require legislative approval.

June 2021: The trial court orders the State to implement the Comprehensive Remedial Plan, which would cost roughly $5.4 BILLION each year by 2028, according to an appendix to the Plan itself.

November 2021:

· Before the state budget was enacted, Plaintiffs and the State ask the trial court to require the State Controller and Treasurer (neither of whom were part of the lawsuit) to transfer $1.7 BILLION out of the State treasury to pay for the beginning years of the Comprehensive Remedial Plan.

· The parties submit to the judge a proposed order which incorrectly stated that the Supreme Court held there was a statewide failure to provide children with the opportunity for a sound basic education. In reality, the Supreme Court’s decision was limited to Hoke County.

· The trial judge recognizes the NC Constitution prohibits the drawing of money from the State treasury except “in consequence of the appropriations made by law” (NC Const. Art. V, § 7. He also cites Supreme Court and Court of Appeals precedents hold that the General Assembly has exclusive power to make appropriations. Still, the trial judge largely agrees with the parties.

· On November 10, 2021, the trial judge purported to direct the Office of State Management and Budget, the Treasurer, and Controller to transfer $1,754,153,000 and treat it as an “appropriation.” The trial judge stayed implementation of the order for 30 days.

· On November 18, 2021, the General Assembly enacted, and the Governor signed the State Budget. The State Budget appropriated $21.5 BILLION to K-12 public education for fiscal years 2021-2023.

· On November 24, 2021, the State Controller (who was not a party to the lawsuit but had been ordered to transfer money from the State treasury in the November 10 Order) asked the Court of Appeals to stop implementation of the November 10 Order.

· On November 29, 2022, the Court of Appeals issued a writ of prohibition “restrain[ing] the trial court from enforcing the portion of its order requiring the petition [State Controller] to treat the $1.7 billion in unappropriated funding…as an appropriation.”

December 2021: Various parties to the lawsuit appealed. Some appeals were from the trial court’s November 10 Order, others were from the Court of Appeals decision on November 18.

March 2022: The Supreme Court grants several motions including motion to take the appeal of the trial court’s order directly, thus letting it skip the Court of Appeals. At the same time, the Supreme Court sends the case back to the trial court to determine what effect the enactment of the State Budget had on the trial court’s November 10 Order. The next day, the case was assigned to a new trial judge, Michael Robinson.

April 2022: The trial court issued its decision stating it was bound by the Court of Appeals decision that the court could not order State officers (like the State Controller) to transfer funds out of the State treasury. The trial court ruled that the State Budget provided some of the money necessary to implement the Comprehensive Remedial Plan but entered a judgment for additional money. He did not order a transfer of money, however. The parties appealed this order.

May 2022: The Supreme Court issued a schedule for the parties to brief the outstanding appeals. [Various briefs were filed in June, July, and August.]

August 2022: The Supreme Court is scheduled to hearing oral arguments on August 31, 2022.

Fast Facts on Education Spending in North Carolina

  • North Carolina’s $55,905 average teacher salary ranks 3rd in the Southeast. The group average was $53,246 in 2021. (Source: NC DPI, Highlights of the North Carolina Public School Budget 2022)
  • In 2011, the average teacher salary in North Carolina was $46,700. In 2022, the average reached $55,905, an increase of 20%. (Source: NC DPI, Highlights of the North Carolina Public School Budget 2022)
  • Between 2011 and 2022, the total number of state-funded district and charter school employees increased by nearly 12%, while the total number of state-funded teacher positions increased by over 9%. During the same period, district and charter school membership increased by just over 2%. (Source: NC DPI, Statistical Profile and Student Accounting Data)
  • The percent of the North Carolina General Fund dedicated to public schools appropriations increased from 37.4% in 2011 to 40.8% in 2021 (Source: NC DPI, Highlights of the North Carolina Public School Budget 2022)
  • Educator average pay increases since 2015:
Year% Increase
2020-20211.2% average
2021-20222.5% average + $2,800 bonuses for most teachers
Source: NCGA Fiscal Research Division, Legislative Salary Increases
  • Only twelve states (VT, HI, AR, WA, NM, KS, ID, MN, AK, DE, IN, NV) provide a greater share of state-level education funding for public education (61.6%) than North Carolina. (Source: Census Bureau, 2020 Public Elementary-Secondary Education Finance Data [Revised: May 18, 2022]
  • No state in the Southeast provides a greater share of state-level funding for public education (61.6%) than North Carolina. Alabama is second with 56.7% of funding from state sources. (Source: Census Bureau, 2020 Public Elementary-Secondary Education Finance Data [Revised: May 18, 2022])
  • North Carolina’s share of state-level funding for public education (61.6%) is significantly greater than the national average share (47.0%). (Source: Census Bureau, 2020 Public Elementary-Secondary Education Finance Data [Revised: May 18, 2022])
  • Last year, 104 of North Carolina’s 115 school districts spent more than $10,000 per student. (Source: NCDPI, Statistical Profile, Table 24 – Per Pupil Expenditure Ranking (Child Nutrition Included))
  • The state average per-student operating expenditure was $10,753 in 2021. Expenditures ranged from a high of $23,356 in Hyde County to a low of $9,231 in Davidson County. (Source: NC DPI, Statistical Profile)
  • The state average per-student capital outlay expenditure (5-year average) was $978 in 2021. Capital expenditures ranged from a high of $2,835 in Chatham County to a low of $112 in Clinton City. (Source: NC DPI, Statistical Profile)
  • Last year, 21 mostly rural North Carolina school districts spent more than $13,000 per student. (Source: NCDPI, Statistical Profile, Table 24 – Per Pupil Expenditure Ranking (Child Nutrition Included))
  • Real per-student expenditures from state sources only increased by $1,023 between 2011 and 2021. (Source: NC DPI, Statistical Profile figures adjusted using the St. Louis Federal Reserve GDP Implicit Price Deflator; base year=2021

More Spending Doesn’t Always Equal Better Results

The Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University finds no apparent relationship between per pupil expenditures and student proficiency on state tests. (Source: Edunomics Lab, Spending vs. Outcomes by School)

For more information on the history and facts surrounding Leandro v. State of North Carolina check out Carolina Journal’s detailed explainer.