If the May 1 action in Support for Public Schools doesn’t convince North Carolina administrators and policy makers to change course on our education policies, maybe the report from the court-appointed expert in the now 25-year old Leandro litigation—due at the end of May— will. In that groundbreaking case, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled, first in 1997 and again in 2004, that students have a constitutional right to a sound basic education, and that the State was liable for violating that right. The next 14 years have been spent, with minimal success, trying to hold the State accountable to develop and implement a remedy. Meanwhile, another generation of students were deprived of their fundamental educational rights.
But last spring, the judge overseeing the case appointed an expert consultant to assist the court in developing a plan to bring the State into compliance with its constitutional obligation to provide a sound, basic education to every child in our public schools. WestEd, a national nonpartisan, nonprofit education research, development, and service agency, has worked for the last year in collaboration with The Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at North Carolina State University and the Learning Policy Institute, collecting and analyzing information for its report to the court, entitled Sound Basic Education for All: An Action Plan for North Carolina. The final report is scheduled to be presented at the end of May.
The WestEd team, with substantial input from school leaders and administrators, teachers, state education agencies and officials, and the Governor’s Commission on Access to a Sound Basic Education, conducted seven research studies on North Carolina’s compliance with the four core Leandrotenets: 1) trained and certified teachers in all classrooms; 2) effective administrative leadership in all schools; 3) adequate resources to meet the needs of children in all schools, and 4) an assessment system that demonstrates the existence of adequate progress and achievement. Based on the monthly status updates provided to the court, it appears likely that the message from demonstrators on May 1 will be repeated in the WestEd report: 1) hire support staff—particularly social workers, counselors, nurses and psychologists; 2) provide better pay, benefits and professionalism to our teachers and school leaders; and 3) change the policies and practices regarding funding and resource allocation that entrench the inequities burdening low-wealth students and high poverty schools.
If the report WestEd sends the court at the end of May is anything like what it provided to the Kansas state legislature in 2018, it will include everything from specific dollar amounts needed to address the inadequacy and inequity of North Carolina’s current system to foundational policy recommendations. Based on information in their monthly reports, the WestEd team has scrutinized a range of factors related to equity and adequacy, including the ability to develop, recruit, support, and retain high quality teachers and principals, the impacts of North Carolina’s charter school system; overwhelmingly disproportionate representation of African American and Latinx students in high-poverty, under-resourced schools; and letter grade school assessment model.
We shouldn’t need another mass demonstration to tell our General Assembly to do what the constitution and the Leandro decisions require and what has been needed to save our public schools for more than a decade. And it shouldn’t take a national school finance expert report to understand that if a government truly values public education, it must equitably provide the necessary resources to support and retain effective school leaders, teachers and support staff and treat them like the professionals they are. There simply is no other way to address the critical needs and challenges facing the over 400,000 children in North Carolina’s high poverty schools. Nor is there any other way for the State to comply with our constitution.