At long last, a plan to comply with Leandro education mandate takes shape

By: - January 22, 2020 12:12 pm

More than two decades after a landmark state Supreme Court ruling, NC moves a step closer to assuring every child access to a “sound, basic education”

A North Carolina judge seemed to agree with an independent consultant’s report that says North Carolina needs to spend $8 billion over the next eight years to meet its constitutional obligation to provide a “sound, basic education.”

That is one takeaway after Superior Court Judge David Lee signed a consent order Tuesday in which defendants and plaintiffs in the long-running Leandro case agreed to work “expeditiously and without delay” to create and implement a plan.

The 34-page order was prepared by attorneys for the plaintiffs, the State Board of Education (SBE) and the state of North Carolina. 

The attorneys will have 60 days to submit a plan to Lee that spells out how the parties intend to meet the short-term goals recommended in the report, released last month by the California-based consultant WestEd. 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. “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.” 

WestEd was ordered by Lee to conduct extensive research into the state’s public education system and to bring back recommendations for improvement. The California-based nonprofit’s recommendations, which would be phased in over several years, will serve as the framework for the plan.

Melanie Dubis, the attorney representing the Leandro plaintiffs, called the work by attorneys to reach agreement in the case “historic.”

Lee, meanwhile, said he’s bound by the seminal 1997 state Supreme Court ruling, which held that the state constitution guarantees “a right to a sound basic education.” 

“To me, that means I’m also bound by what the state Supreme Court said back there in 1997 and that is, if somebody else doesn’t do it, the court has to do it, ill equipped though it may be,” Lee said. “I think I would be dodging my constitutional duty if I didn’t push this and do what needs to be done. I’m not afraid to do that.”  

Mark Dorosin, an attorney representing the Charlotte chapter of the NAACP—a plaintiff-intervenor in the case— asked Lee to provide specific guidelines about what he’d like to see in the 60-day plan and future reports. 

Superior Court Judge David Lee (Photo by Greg Childress)

“That would be helpful in really focusing us,” Dorosin said. “One of the challenges in this case for many years was getting a sufficiently detailed and specific plan on how the state was going to meet its obligation.” 

Examples can be provided by New Mexico and Kansas, both of which have already wrestled with the issue, Dorosin said. 

“Those might be helpful in crafting the triage plan, the 60-day [plan] and the ones that follow. I think what none of us want is an order that is so ambiguous that we’re sort of back where we were five years ago or 10 years ago.” 

Dorosin noted no legislative leaders were present at Monday’s proceeding.

“Obviously their role will be critical both in how the remedy gets crafted as well as how it’s implemented,” Dorosin said.

Sen. Deanna Ballard, a Republican from Watauga County, said in December that the state, under the leadership of the Republican-led General Assembly, is already carrying out many of the policy recommendations in the WestEd report and is on pace to exceed its spending recommendations.  

The Leandro case began more than a quarter-century ago after five rural school districts sued the state, arguing they couldn’t raise the tax revenue needed to provide students with a quality education.  

Melanie Dubis, the attorney representing the Leandro plaintiffs. (Photo by Greg Childress)

“It is unprecedented just to get us to this point of a consent order,” Dubis said. “We understand that we have a lot of work to do and the ultimate goal is to provide your honor [Lee] that specific, detailed, comprehensive plan that you’ve asked for and WestEd has given us the framework for.” 

Dubis noted that there are policy issues the SBE must address, legislation for the General Assembly to consider and cost considerations to sort out in developing plans to comply with Leandro. 

“I believe we’re all in agreement with what your honor [Lee] has in mind, and that’s putting together a structure and a timeline that we can bring to your honor [Lee] the comprehensive plan we all envision,” Dubis said. 

Amar Majmundar, senior deputy attorney general representing North Carolina, said there are many reasons why the Leandro case has moved slowly. 

“Inertia is really the root cause of these problems – it’s being okay with where we are,” Majmundar said. “This room is emblematic of the fact that we’re not okay anymore.” 

The attorneys acknowledge in the consent order, as is spelled out in the WestEd report, that many children across North Carolina, especially those deemed at risk of academic failure and those who are economically disadvantaged, do not receive a “Leandro-conforming education.” 

As the student population in the state has grown by 25% over the past 20 years, so has the number of students with more expensive needs, the report states. More than 400,000 of the state’s roughly 1.5 million students attend schools considered high-poverty schools.  

Majmundar said the WestEd report shows that investing in the state’s children will pay off in the future. 

“What I worry about is the idea that there is a silver bullet, because there’s not,” Majmundar said. “This is a generational issue.” 

The attorneys and Lee agreed that a system must be put in place to monitor the progress of any action plan put together as part of the consent order. 

“To me, there’s something to be said for having a group of people that would include the State Board [of Education], that would include the governor’s office, that would include the legislature,” Lee said. “Those people would hone in on the finer points that might need to be addressed either by the state board or the legislature.” 

Susan Mundry, director of learning innovations for WestEd, said all parties involved in the consent order should be part of a monitoring function. 

“There needs to be more of a monitoring body that provides both expertise because of knowledge around how the North Carolina education system works, but also real capacity to look at data that we have said in the assessment and accountability set of recommendations in the report. There need to be a number of metrics that are captured and reported in a dashboard or in some readily accessible format.”    

Mundry said benchmarks could be developed from a list of outcomes in the “critical need” section of the WestEd report. 

The WestEd report includes a “sequenced action plan” that shows how North Carolina should go about implementing the consultant’s recommendations. 

The plan prioritizes investments in the communities with the greatest needs first, including high-poverty schools.  

Here are seven widely reported recommendations made by WestEd:  

  1.  Create a system of teacher development and recruitment that ensures each classroom is staffed with a high-quality teacher who is supported with early and ongoing professional learning and provided competitive pay. 
  2. Create a system of principal development and recruitment that ensures each school is led by a high-quality principal who is supported with early and ongoing professional learning and provided competitive pay. 
  3. Develop a finance system that provides adequate, equitable and predictable funding to school districts and, importantly, adequate resources to address the needs of all North Carolina schools and students, especially at-risk students as defined by the Leandro decisions. 
  4.  Develop an assessment and accountability system that reliably assesses multiple measures of student performance against (and provide accountability consistent with) the Leandro standard.
  5.  Create an assistance and turnaround function that provides necessary support to low-performing schools and districts. 
  6.  Develop a system of early education that provides access to high-quality pre-kindergarten and other early childhood learning opportunities to ensure all students at risk of educational failure, regardless of where they live in the state, enter kindergarten on track for school success. 
  7.  Develop an alignment of high school to post-secondary and career expectations, as well as the provision of early post-secondary and workforce learning opportunities, to ensure student readiness to all students in the state.  

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Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.