A public schools advocacy group is calling on North Carolina leaders to take “immediate and intentional action” to meet the state’s constitutional obligation to provide children with a “sound, basic education.”
That was the clear message delivered Tuesday by the nonpartisan Public School Forum of North Carolina, which released its annual list of education priorities to inform state lawmakers and educators as they consider K-12 policy decisions this year.
Forum leaders said legislation and policies have done little to address critical issues facing the state’s public schools.
“North Carolina continues to grapple with inadequate and inequitable resources to meet even the most basic student needs, as well as widespread teacher shortages, massive disparities in educational opportunity and outcomes based on a range of characteristics including race, socioeconomic status, language, geography, and a political environment that has made support for a strong system of public education an issue of contention instead of cohesion,” Forum officials wrote in the report’s introduction.
The Forum’s list of priorities includes:
- A redesign of North Carolina’s school finance system to dramatically improve adequacy, equity and flexibility.
- An overhaul of educator compensation, recruitment and professional development strategies.
- A revamp of the school accountability model and the elimination or revision of the A-F school grading system.
- A major state investment to fully fund more than $8 billion in school construction, renovation and repair needs.
- A plan to monitor progress toward Leandro compliance. The state Supreme Court found in Leandro v. State of North Carolina that the state has a constitutional obligation to provide its children with the opportunity to receive a sound basic education.
The Forum has published a list of top education issues for more than 25 years. This year’s list was informed by the long-awaited WestEd report and recommendations by the Governor’s Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education.
Both the WestEd report and the commission’s recommendations stem from the 1997 landmark Leandro decision, in which the state Supreme Court held that the North Carolina constitution guarantees a right to a “sound basic education.”
Plaintiffs in the case argued that low-wealth counties, despite being heavily taxed, could not generate enough tax revenue to fund their school districts as wealthier districts.
“The WestEd report makes clear what many people in this room [have] been saying for a long time: The state is not providing the resources required to meet its constitutional obligation,” said Lauren Fox, the Forum’s senior policy director. “In fact, WestEd found that we’re actually farther away from meeting the Leandro requirements than when the case first began.”
Fox made her remarks to a few hundred educators, elected officials and public school advocates attending the organization’s 2020 “Eggs & Issues” breakfast in Raleigh.
WestEd, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research agency, was ordered by Superior Court Judge David Lee, who is overseeing the Leandro case, to study the state’s public schools and make recommendations for improvement.
WestEd found that North Carolina has failed to meet the education needs of many of its children. It also made several recommendations for reforms that will require significant new state investments over the coming eight years (though experts differ as to precisely how much).
The commission backed many of WestEd’s recommendations.
The Forum’s priorities mirror those found in the WestEd report, with the notable exception that the Forum urged the state to fully North Carolina’s mounting school construction and renovation needs.
Michael Priddy, the Forum’s acting president and executive director, said funding for school construction and renovation is an “urgent matter” and noted the state has a history of successful school construction bond referendums dating to 1949.
“We believe that meeting our state’s school infrastructure needs is an important component of providing children with a sound basic education,” Priddy said.
State Democrats and Republicans agree that local districts desperately need money for new schools and renovations but disagree about how to pay for them.
Democrats, led by Gov. Roy Cooper, have proposed a $3.9 billion bond referendum. They say it’s a smarter way to pay for school construction because it locks down current interest rates and leaves money on the table for other educational needs. House Republicans have also expressed interest in a bond, but at a lower level.
In contrast, Republicans in the state Senate favor a “pay-as-you-go” method, contending it would save taxpayer’s more than $1 million in interest payments.
Priddy said the state should consider both methods; pay-as-you-go as an initial investment and a bond referendum coming later.
The Forum also released its 2020 Local School Finance Study, which showed the state’s 10 highest spending counties spent an average of $3,305 per student compared to an average of $782 per student for the lowest spending counties. The $2,523 spending gap is the largest since the group began tracking the data in 1987.
“Our failure to address this is harmful to our children and harmful to the future well-being of our state,” Fox said.
She said providing students with equitable educational opportunities, particularly for children historically shortchanged, is a “moral and economic” imperative.
The Forum noted that insufficient state funding has placed more pressure on local school districts to pay for instructional expenses.
Per-pupil spending has declined about 6% since the 2009-10 school year, according to the Forum. The drop coincides with cuts to corporate and income taxes, which is money the Forum says should have been spent on schools.
Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, said adequate funding for public schools must be the state’s top priority.
“We’ve had 10 years of a reversal trend that we’ve got to stop,” Jewell said. “Obviously, we need to make sure educator pay is at the top, and I mean from the cafeteria worker to the classroom teacher to everyone who is involved with our kids.”
Jewell said additional resources are needed for students as well.
“It’s been 15 years since we’ve had a comprehensive textbook adoption in North Carolina,” Jewell said. “That’s not the North Carolina way. We have a huge teacher shortage crisis. That’s not the North Carolina way.”
Instead of investing in public schools, Jewell said the Republican-led General Assembly has chosen to hand out large corporate tax cuts.
The WestEd report identifies eight areas the state must address to ensure children receive a sound basic education. They include a qualified, well trained teacher in every classroom, a qualified well-train principal in every schools, support for high-poverty schools, adequate and equitable allocation of resources, reform of state assessment and accountability systems and other reforms.
Judge Lee signed a consent order last month giving attorneys in the Leandro case 60 days to submit a plan that spells out how the parties plan to meet short-term goals recommended in the WestEd report. Plans to meet longer-term goals will come later.
“I trust that everyone is on the same page in terms of the needs that we have in this state to be Leandro-compliant,” Lee said last month. “I know that there are different paths that different people believe are appropriate to take to achieve that goal, but I want us to move forward in a structured way.”