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John Hood: Report can’t solve funding debate

By John Hood

RALEIGH — It requires a certain kind of person to think that a 300-page policy report could ever resolve a longstanding political dispute. I fear that, in my early days as a journalist and think-tank analyst, I may have been one of those persons.

Then I grew up.

I learned that, while formal policy analysis is a critically important tool, you need more in your toolbox if you aspire to lead or advise governments. For most controversial issues, there is a wealth of evidence, not a dearth of it — because smart people were likely considering, studying, and debating the issues long before the current crop of politicians and analysts showed up.

It requires a mixture of hubris and naiveté, in other words, to think a team of “experts” can examine a complex social problem with complete objectivity, select the best evidence dispassionately, and render a policy conclusion that would make any significant dissent unreasonable. Politics doesn’t work like that. Life doesn’t work like that.

Wouldn’t it be great, though? Wouldn’t it save a lot of time and bother? Sure. That explains the allure of the omniscient expert, the omnipotent study. Naturally, the allure is strongest when you figure the experts in question will support your position.

You’ll see no clearer example of this than recent events in North Carolina’s decades-old Leandro case, which began as an attempt by rural school districts to get more money from the state and later morphed into an attempt by all districts to get more money from the state.

By now, the identities of the “plaintiffs” and the “defendants” have gotten jumbled up. The objective of the litigation, as for similar lawsuits in other states, has always been to secure a court order requiring the General Assembly to appropriate vastly more money for public schools, even if it required a big tax increase.

If you are expecting the likes of Gov. Roy Cooper or Attorney General Josh Stein to defend the state here, you are looking in the wrong place. The legislature’s constitutional powers to enact laws and appropriate funds are the ones at stake.

During past administrations, the state “lost” at various stages of the Leandro litigation, in the sense that courts defined a clear right to the opportunity for a “sound, basic education” and concluded that many North Carolina children had not been afforded it. But the decisions never reached the destination the plaintiffs sought: the judicial branch ordering the legislative branch to appropriate a specific (presumably huge) amount of tax money.

This is where a long-awaited policy report comes in. It was produced by WestEd, a group of consultants that plaintiffs across the country have repeatedly tapped to recommend higher spending. Although the Leandro parties have had access to the report since July, it has only now been made public. Among many findings and recommendations — some quite interesting and worthy of serious consideration, in my opinion — the big and controversial one is, not surprisingly, that North Carolina should spend about $7 billion more on K-12 schools over the next eight years, plus $1 billion more on state preschool programs.

If this were simply a report designed to inform legislative deliberation, that would be one thing. But the actual play here is to use the report’s findings to produce a “consent decree,” agreed to by everyone except the General Assembly. If lawmakers then fashion their next state budget without fully implementing the terms of the decree, they’ll be sued. A constitutional crisis will ensue.

On the questions of how much to fund public education and specifically how the funds should be spent, there is no research consensus broad enough to convert into a constitutional mandate. There never will be. Social science can produce valid findings, even compelling findings.

It can’t produce certainty. In exercising the power of the purse, there can be no substitute for deliberation and legislation by elected representatives.

Indeed, that principle is itself stated explicitly in the state constitution. No policy report can change that.

John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation.

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