by Joseph Coletti
Senior Fellow, Fiscal Studies, John Locke Foundation
Supporters of higher taxes cheered the WestEd report on North Carolina schools that became public on December 10th, five months after Judge David Lee received it. Until Judge Lee incorporates the report’s recommendations into one or more court orders as part of the 25-year-old Leandro v. State of North Carolina case, their joy will be muted. Even then, the ultimate decision on school funding and tax rates in the budget will remain with the General Assembly as dictated in the North Carolina Constitution.
The consultants recommend spending $8 billion over eight years and up to $2 billion per year thereafter early childhood programs and K-12 education initiatives, sums that rival Medicaid expansion in size, though with no federal match. These would be paid almost entirely by state and local taxes.
Education policy experts will debate the specifics of those reforms and what they could mean for early childhood education, charter schools, and even the children themselves. As Terry Stoops has reminded readers, “Empirical research has not established a ‘magic number,’ a level of spending that ensures that all children (or even certain categories of children) reach academic proficiency. If we had one, every public school system in the nation would use it.” He questions the validity of studies that purport to determine the amount of money required to provide all children an adequate education. He points out that even WestEd admitted that it is “a calculation that is more art than science.”
That has not stopped courts in other states, however. Kansas’ Supreme Court ruled in June that education funding in that state was finally adequate after a ten-year struggle between the legislature and the courts, during which time annual spending on education had climbed by $1 billion per year. The higher spending, among other factors, helped doom tax cuts enacted in 2012 and made Kansas a byword for bad fiscal policy. Somehow, a final $90 million increase won the court’s blessing there.
Jeanette Doran of the North Carolina Institute for Constitutional Law questions the legitimacy of such intervention here. “The North Carolina Constitution sets out a specific, multi-step budget process,” Doran concluded, “and the courts have no part in that process.”
A Court of Appeals ruling on budget authority in Berger v. Cooper may further that understanding. In the court’s unanimous decision, Judge Lucy Inman wrote, “The General Assembly’s primacy over state expenditures…dates to the genesis of the State.” Courts should have no more say over expenditures than the governor, who proposes spending to the legislature and manages the budget once enacted. This arrangement lies at the heart of our system of government, and its preservation is essential to the health of that system.
It seems likely that the General Assembly will adapt and adopt some of the recommendations from WestEd. The overall thrust of the report is for higher spending, but there are laudable ideas within. For example, in a study published by the John Locke Foundation earlier this year, Stoops and Aaron Garth Smith of the Reason Foundation recommended ending the state’s multiple district-level allotments in favor of student-weighted funding, a suggested reform that WestEd includes in its report. Legislators should not feel compelled to fund education at any level set by the courts, but they should continue to seek ways to ensure tax dollars are used wisely in meeting the needs of children and students.
As of Thursday morning, the Republican leadership of the General Assembly has yet to comment on the WestEd report. In fact, Republicans have been uninterested in the evolution of the Leandro case since Judge Lee was tasked to take over oversight of the case from Judge Howard Manning in 2016. Perhaps they believe that, like Judge Manning, Judge Lee will be careful to respect the separation of powers between the judicial and legislative branches. But there is no indication that Judge Lee will follow Manning’s path either in style or substance. We may be headed into new territory.