“By every objective measure, we are underfunded and we are failing.”
That’s how Larry Armstrong, longtime attorney for the Halifax County Board of Education, summed up the task before Gov. Roy Cooper’s Commission on Access to Sound, Basic Education Thursday—more than two decades after the pivotal Leandro Supreme Court decision rebuked the state for school funding inequalities in some of North Carolina’s poorest counties like Halifax.
Armstrong, along with many members of Cooper’s panel of business, K-12, higher education and charity leaders, said, that despite that 1997 ruling, North Carolina continues to fail students in poor and struggling districts.
Armstrong addressed the 19-member panel during its first meeting Thursday, which comes weeks before a judge is expected to field recommendations for an independent consultant that will determine what state officials must do to bring North Carolina in compliance with Leandro’s mandate of a “sound, basic education” to all, regardless of a student’s local school district.
“I think all of us can admit we have struggled in this state to live up to that constitutional requirement,” Cooper told members Thursday morning, shortly before the commission took the oath of office.
Members of Cooper’s commission are expected to partner with the court consultant to assess the state’s needs and, in the next 12 to 18 months, recommend fixes to long-running funding disparities between wealthy and poor counties.
“It is long past time to bring further substance and teeth to the Leandro decision,” said Brad Wilson, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of N.C.’s CEO and the man Cooper tasked with chairing the commission. “It is fundamental to our time and attention.”
A 2017 annual report  from the Public School Forum of N.C., a nonpartisan research and advocacy organization based in Raleigh, offers a recent analysis of the state’s persistent gaps in per-student funding between low-income and wealthy counties.
While the state provides the bulk of operations funding for public schools, local governments, depending on the value of their local tax base, are able to supplement K-12 spending amounts in varying amounts.
According to the Public School Forum report, the ten highest spending counties in the state were able to spend an average of more than $3,000 per student in the 2014-15 school year, far higher than the $710 average in North Carolina’s lowest-spending counties.
In some communities, the differences are staggering. Leaders spent more than $4,700 per student in affluent Orange County, but in rural Swain County, schools received less than $400 per pupil.
And while state leaders offer additional funding allocations today for small and low-wealth counties, many school advocates say it’s not enough, creating “have” and “have-not” school districts.
Cooper’s office says his new commission is charged with drafting recommendations for alleviating these gaps. And the governor told members Thursday that he believes the panel faces a “comprehensive” challenge.
“There are so many dedicated principals, public school teachers and other school support personnel that are working tirelessly on a daily basis to do the best that they can,” said Cooper. “I am optimistic that we can give these principals, teachers and support personnel more help and do it in a way to attract more people to use their abilities in our schools.”
Based on members’ comments Thursday, the panel’s work may be far-flung. Officials called for reformed testing, more school social workers and psychologists, an expansion of state-supported Pre-K programs, and perhaps most of all, reviews of the adequacy of North Carolina’s K-12 spending.
“We’ve talked for really decades about every child not having equal access and equity,” said Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE), the state’s top teacher lobbying organization. “We know that it’s going to take a lot of strong effort, great minds, and also a lot of resources to really address the barriers and challenges of poverty and trauma.”
Commission member Jim Deal, a Boone attorney and former member of the UNC Board of Governors, said that the state must also place a greater value on its teachers.
“We need to talk about our teachers as a valued resource, not as somebody who’s under attack, not as somebody who’s having to defend everything they do,” said Deal.
The commission’s work coincides with a legislative task force that began meeting in November to consider reforming the state’s complicated allocation funding system, although the Republican-controlled task force has been criticized because it is not expected to take up the overall adequacy of funding .
A key national benchmark ranked the state’s per-pupil spending at a projected 43rd in the nation this year.
Meanwhile, it’s unclear how Cooper’s commission will interact, if at all, with the GOP-controlled legislature. Representatives for state Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore didn’t respond to multiple Policy Watch interview requests this week, but General Assembly leadership has been at odds with the Democratic governor when it comes to K-12 funding and a host of other issues since his January inauguration.
Yet Rep. Cecil Brockman , a Guilford County Democrat who sits as vice-chair of the House Education Committee, says he applauds Cooper’s commission.
“I think an examination of inequality in education is badly needed here in North Carolina,” Brockman told Policy Watch. “Right now, 60 percent of African American students in traditional public schools are not proficient at grade level. This is a legitimate crisis and one that deserves the full attention of all our leaders across the state.”
Additionally, a panel led by UNC System President Margaret Spellings  is slated to brainstorm improvements in college and career-readiness among the state’s public school students, producing two reports on economic mobility over the next 12 to 18 months.
But Cooper’s commission may play a key part in the still broiling Leandro litigation, which has wound through multiple court rulings and, until last year, long-running oversight by retired Superior Court Judge Howard Manning.
From 1997 to 2016, Manning oversaw the state’s compliance with the Leandro ruling, issuing rulings that found children were entitled to competent teachers, principals and adequate supplies. The case was handed over to retired Union County Judge David Lee last year after Manning reached mandatory retirement age in 2015 and reportedly began to suffer from health problems.
Melanie Dubis, lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the Leandro case, said Thursday that the state “made a lot of progress” from 2004 until 2009, when an economic recession spurred deep cuts to public school coffers, cuts that public school advocates say have yet to be fully replaced years after the recession.
Dubis listed cuts to Pre-K slots, plummeting teacher pay rankings and the legislature’s 2011 move to eliminate the Teaching Fellows program, a nationally lauded teacher scholarship program, as exacerbating factors.
Legislators rolled out a new Teaching Fellows program this year, although its focus will be limited to prospective science, math, technology, engineering and special education teachers.
“It’s been one step forward and two steps back,” said Dubis Thursday.
However, Dubis and Halifax attorney Larry Armstrong complimented Cooper and the state Attorney General’s office for “extraordinary” cooperation in the Leandro case in the last six months.
Members of Cooper’s commission are scheduled to meet at least quarterly to discuss Leandro reforms, although Wilson said Thursday he expects meetings at least once every two months.
“Understand that we are here for the children, for the students of North Carolina,” said Wilson. “It will be easy for us to get distracted chasing other goals, but we need to constantly remind ourselves and see those faces, the faces that we see in our neighborhoods and in our homes. “What we do here will change lives in perpetuity in North Carolina.”
(Disclosure: Rick Glazier, executive director of the N.C. Justice Center, is a member of the commission. The Justice Center is Policy Watch’s parent nonprofit).
Individuals serving on the Governor’s Commission on Access to Sound, Basic Education:
• Brad Wilson of Raleigh as the health care representative to the Commission and its Chair. Wilson is CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina. He is a past Chair of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors and served as General Counsel to Gov. Jim Hunt.
• Dr. Fouad Abd-El-Khalick of Durham as the university representative to the Commission. Abd-El-Khalick is Professor and Dean of the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is formerly Professor of Education and Associate Dean for Research & Research Education in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he also served as Head of the Department of Curriculum & Instruction.
• Charles Becton of Durham as the judicial representative. Becton served as a judge on the North Carolina Court of Appeals for nine years, being named NC Appellate Judge of the Year in 1985. He has also served as President of the NC Bar Association and as Interim Chancellor at both North Carolina Central University and Elizabeth City State University.
• Melody Chalmers of Fayetteville as the principal representative to the Commission. Chalmers is the Principal at E.E. Smith High School in Cumberland County. She has more than 20 years of experience as an English teacher, assistant principal, and principal and was the 2016-17 North Carolina Principal of the Year.
• Jim Deal of Boone as the business community representative to the Commission. Deal is an attorney with Deal, Moseley & Smith, LLP. He is a former Chair of the Watauga County Board of Education, the Watauga County Board of Commissioners, and the Appalachian State University Board of Trustees, and a former member of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors.
• Alan Duncan of Greensboro as the school board representative to the Commission. Duncan is Chair of the Guilford County Schools Board of Education, where he has served since 2000 and as Chair since 2002. Duncan, who is an attorney with Mullins Duncan Harrell & Russell PLLC, also serves as Chair of the Board’s Budget Committee.
• Rick Glazier of Fayetteville as the non-profit representative. Glazier is the Executive Director of the North Carolina Justice Center. He is a former state representative from Cumberland County, and served as Chairman of the Cumberland County Schools Board of Education.
• Mark Jewell of Raleigh as an at-large representative to the Commission. Jewell is the President of the NC Association of Educators. He has more than 30 years of experience as a public school teacher, mostly in the elementary grades. More recently, he served as a Lateral Entry Specialist in Guilford County Schools, where he provided support for new teachers entering the profession through alternative licensure.
• Leigh Kokenes of Raleigh as the school psychologist representative. Kokenes is a school psychologist with the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS), where she provides comprehensive school psychology services to students in kindergarten through 8th grade. She has more than 22 years of experience in special education and school psychology, and was named the 2016 WCPSS School Psychologist of the Year.
• Dr. Helen F. Ladd of Durham as the education researcher representative to the Commission. Ladd is the Susan B. King Professor Emerita of Public Policy and Economics at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. Her education research focuses on school finance and accountability, teacher labor markets, school choice, and early childhood programs.
• Dr. Patrick Miller of Snow Hill as the superintendent representative to the Commission. Miller is the Superintendent of Greene County Schools, where he has served for the past nine years. He is a former choral music and theater arts teacher and elementary school principal in Greene County. Miller was the 2014-15 NC Central Regional Superintendent of the Year.
• James Moore of Rocky Mount as the public safety representative to the Commission. Moore is the Rocky Mount Chief of Police. He has nearly 30 years of law enforcement experience in Rocky Mount and Wilmington, where he has served in patrol, investigations, special operations, and support services functions.
• Mark Richardson of Stokesdale as the county commissioner representative to the Commission. Richardson is Chairman of the Rockingham County Board of Commissioners. He is a retired colonel with the US Air Force, as well as a former middle and high school teacher and principal. Richardson is a member of the NC Association of County Commissioners and serves on the Association’s Educational Steering Committee.
• Fernando Solano Valverde of Greensboro as the teacher representative to the Commission. Valverde is an English as a Second Language Kindergarten Teacher at South Lexington School in Lexington. He has more than 20 years of teaching experience and was the 2016-17 Lexington City Schools Teacher of the Year.
• Michael Williams of Rocky Mount as the workforce board representative. Williams is Executive Director for the Turning Point Workforce Development Board, which oversees the regional workforce development system serving Edgecombe, Halifax, Nash, Northampton, and Wilson Counties. A native of Halifax County, he has more than 25 years of experience in workforce and economic development.
• Dr. Stelfanie Williams of Henderson as the community college representative to the Commission. Williams is President of Vance-Granville Community College. She has served as faculty and in several administrative roles, including director, dean, and vice president, at other community colleges. She also is an adjunct faculty member for the North Carolina State University College of Education.
• Leslie Winner of Durham as an at-large representative to the Commission. Winner is the former Executive Director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and a former state senator. Winner also served as Vice President and General Counsel to the University of North Carolina and as General Counsel to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education.
• Henrietta Zalkind of Raleigh as the early childhood education representative to the Commission. Zalkind is the founding Executive Director of the Down East Partnership for Children, where she has served in that role since 1994. She has also worked for legal services in Rhode Island and North Carolina, specializing in education law.