Even in the midst of a pandemic, legislators’ priorities on Leandro are key

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note: this piece was originally published by Cardinal & Pine

As North Carolina enters the fifth month of the COVID-19 outbreak, much talk has been made about a looming economic catastrophe of undetermined proportions.  But pandemics don’t relieve state lawmakers of their constitutional mandate to provide a “sound basic education.”  If our legislators disagree, they need to be replaced.

Background:

In 1994 a lawsuit was brought against the state of North Carolina and the State Board of Education by plaintiffs from five economically distressed counties (Cumberland, Halifax, Hoke, Robeson and Vance).  

The suit alleged that the state was not providing an equal opportunity to a high quality education and was thus failing to meet its obligation under the North Carolina Constitution, which holds:

“The people have a right to the privilege of education, and it is the duty of the State to guard and maintain that right.” (Article I, Section 15)

“The General Assembly shall provide by taxation and otherwise for a general and uniform system of free public schools, which shall be maintained at least nine months in every year, and wherein equal opportunities shall be provided for all students.” (Article IX, Section 2)

The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that those sections of the North Carolina Constitution “guarantee every child of this state an opportunity to receive a sound basic education in our public schools.”  

In its landmark decision, the court defined a sound basic education as one that provides students with sufficient understanding of academic content to “enable the student to function in a complex and rapidly changing society,” and to “make informed choices with regard to issues that affect the student personally or affect the student’s community, state, and nation.”  

The court said that education must also equip students with the skills they need in order to “successfully engage in post-secondary education or vocational training” and “compete on an equal basis with others in further formal education or gainful employment in contemporary society.”

In 2002, a lower court found the state of North Carolina to be in violation of students’ right to a sound basic education.  

The North Carolina Supreme Court affirmed that decision in 2004 and ordered the state to remedy its failure by providing the following:

*That every classroom be staffed with a competent, certified, well-trained teacher who is teaching the standard course of student by implementing effective educational methods that provide differentiated, individualized instruction, assessment and remediation to the students in that classroom.  

*That every school be led by a well-trained competent principal with the leadership skills and the ability to hire and retain competent, certified and well-trained teachers who can implement an effective and cost effective instructional program that meets the needs of at-risk children so that they can have the equal opportunity to obtain a sound basic education by achieving grade level or above academic performance.  

*That every school be provided, in the most cost effective manner, the resources necessary to support the effective instructional program within that school so that the educational needs of all children, including at-risk children, to have the equal opportunity to obtain a sound basic education, can be met.”

In ensuing years, very little progress was made in improving education funding or successfully addressing poor education outcomes.  

Then in 2018, the judge tasked with monitoring the state’s implementation of the Leandro decision appointed consulting agency WestEd to conduct a detailed review of North Carolina’s education system and offer recommendations.  

WestEd’s comprehensive report was released to the public in December 2019.  It states that North Carolina is even further from meeting its constitutional obligation to provide a sound basic education now than it was when the Supreme Court’s decision was originally issued more than two decades ago.  

It further notes that “the future prosperity and well-being of the state’s citizens requires successfully educating all of its children…North Carolina’s current education system fails to meet the education needs of many of its children and thereby fails to provide for the future success of these individuals, their communities, and the state.”

The WestEd report provides a detailed road map for improvements that need to be made to ensure that North Carolina is meeting the educational needs of its students.  

It identifies eight “critical need” areas:

1.  Revise the state funding model to provide adequate, efficient, and equitable resources.

2.  Provide a qualified, well-prepared, and diverse teaching staff in every school.

3.  Provide a qualified and well-prepared principal in every school.

4.  Provide all at-risk students with the opportunity to attend high-quality early childhood programs.

5.  Direct resources, opportunities, and initiatives to economically disadvantaged students.

6.  Revise the student assessment system and school accountability system.

7.  Build an effective regional and statewide system of support for the improvement of “low-performing” schools.

8.  Convene an expert panel to assist the Court in monitoring state policies, plans, programs, and progress.

The report lays out specific policy recommendations on how the state can meet the eight critical needs.  Many of the policies recommended by WestEd would require the state to provide additional resources, which would obviously come with a price tag.

General Assembly leadership unmoved by Leandro mandate:

As soon as the WestEd report became public, Republican leaders in both the North Carolina House and Senate began complaining about not being involved in WestEd’s work.  

A spokeswoman for longtime Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said the state had made “incredible strides in education” since the GOP took over in 2011 and added “It is impossible to get a comprehensive look at education funding and policy in the state without talking directly to the people who create the laws and allocate the money.  It seems to me that it’s awfully difficult to credibly analyze policy choices without ever speaking to the people who made those choices.”

House Speaker Tim Moore’s spokesman also indicated findings would have been different had state legislators given input on the report.

This seems like a good time to mention that under the leadership of Berger and Moore, North Carolina’s state legislature has repeatedly cut taxes for individuals and corporations, primarily to the benefit of our state’s wealthiest shareholders and individuals.   According to North Carolina Budget and Tax Center data, as of the last round of rate reductions North Carolina has $3.6 billion less per year than it would have had otherwise.

Those massive tax cuts have taken away money that could have been spent on implementing WestEd’s policy recommendations.  They have made it far more difficult for North Carolina’s public schools to provide a sound basic education to all of our students.

Along with the COVID-driven economic climate, this depleted revenue has provided legislators who don’t necessarily care to see strong public schools with a convenient excuse for failing to act on WestEd’s recommendations.

In a May press conference, Senator Phil Berger responded to a question about adding education funding to meet the Leandro mandate by essentially saying the court couldn’t make the legislature pay:

“Our constitution does not provide for judges to appropriate dollars.  We’ve said on multiple occasions if judges want to get into the field of appropriating they need to run for the legislature.  We’ll see what the order is, but again we cannot spend money we don’t have.”

Senator Berger is right that the Leandro order lacks any power of enforcement.  A judge cannot allocate revenue from the general fund–it requires having a legislature that believes in following the law and wants to do the right thing for North Carolina’s children.  

But the fact that Republican leadership has methodically and intentionally diverted immense amounts of potential education funding into the pockets of corporations and wealthy individuals does not absolve this legislature of its constitutional obligations either.  

Action plan calls for changes this year:

In January 2020, parties to the Leandro case (both plaintiffs and defendants) set about putting together Phase 1 of an 8 year action plan as required by Judge David Lee.  

The Fiscal Year 2021 Action Plan was submitted to the court this month.

The plan acknowledges the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on North Carolina’s economy.  It notes that when parties began working on the plan, North Carolina had its lowest unemployment in a decade and a healthy budget surplus and now we are facing a forecasted $4.2 billion revenue shortfall.  

However, the action plan also states unequivocally “It is vital that the state does not reduce funding commitments to K-12 public education and early childhood education and developmental supports.  The challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic must not result in the State falling further behind in its efforts to meet the constitutional standard for all children in North Carolina, particularly at-risk students.”

For the upcoming fiscal year, the Leandro action plan recommends a variety of steps which are aligned with critical need areas identified in the WestEd report. 

In part, those steps include:

*Improving efforts to recruit diverse, well-prepared teachers through expansion of the North Carolina Teaching Fellows Program

*Specifically working to increase ethnic diversity of North Carolina’s teaching corps–our teachers are 80% white and serve students who are 52% students of color–and ensure “all teachers employ culturally responsive practices

*Providing more effective mentoring for beginning teachers

*Improving compensation with an average 5% raise for teachers and instructional support staff

*Increasing funding for whole child support (school counselors, nurses, social workers, and psychologists)

*Expanding access to high-quality principal preparation programs

*Revising funding formulas so more resources are directed toward students with greatest need

*Developing capacity to support lowest-performing schools

*Increasing access to high-quality Pre-K

The estimated cost of taking the steps outlined in the FY 2020-21 Action Plan is $427 million above current funding levels.

If you don’t like the policy, change the policy makers:

I reached out to the offices of both Senator Berger and Speaker Moore to ask about the possibility of the General Assembly moving on the above recommendations in the next fiscal year.  Neither bothered to respond.

Public education’s needs are crystal clear.  The path forward has been meticulously delineated.  We have to stop kicking the can down the road and have the integrity to say that the time for action is now.

And if leaders in North Carolina’s state legislature continue to be negligent toward the Supreme Court’s decision and their constitutional obligations, we must work like hell to replace them in November with individuals who believe in adequately funding our schools so we can provide our students with the opportunities they deserve.

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