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Judge sets deadline for North Carolina to boost school funding

A North Carolina judge has set a mid-October deadline for state lawmakers to follow a court-ordered plan to provide full funding for improving public education or he will take action himself.

State Superior Court Judge David Lee said he was “very disheartened” that the General Assembly is funding a small part of a plan calling for at least $5.6 billion in new education funding by 2028, news outlets reported.

Lee has scheduled a court hearing on Oct. 18, and said if the plan isn’t fully funded by then, he will consider options on how the court can resolve the matter.

Pat Ryan, a spokesman for Senate leader Phil Berger, also accused Lee of overstepping his authority, The News & Observer of Raleigh reported.

“I don’t know how much clearer we can be,” Ryan said in a statement Wednesday. “If Judge Lee wants to help decide how to spend state dollars — a role that has been the exclusive domain of the legislative branch since the state’s founding — then Judge Lee should run for a seat in the House or Senate.”

Lee’s warning marks the next stage in the Leandro school funding case first filed in 1994 by low-wealth school districts to get more state funding. The case is named after a Hoke County student who has since graduated from college. The N.C. Supreme Court assigned Lee to oversee the case after Judge Howard Manning retired.

Over the years, the state Supreme Court has ruled that the North Carolina Constitution guarantees every child “an opportunity to receive a sound basic education” and that the state wasn’t meeting that standard.

In June, Lee approved a seven-year plan agreed to by the State Board of Education, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration and the plaintiffs. The $5.6 billion plan includes a 5% pay raise this year for teachers, more money for low-wealth school districts and expanding the NC Pre-K program.

Republicans in the House and Senate each passed their own versions of the budget and are trying to reconcile the differences.

The Leandro plan calls for $690.7 million in new education funding this year and $1.06 billion next year. The Senate budget included $191.6 million this year and $213.7 million next year. The House had $370 million this year and $382.1 million next year.

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