Judge in Leandro court case approves $427 million ‘action plan’ to improve state’s schools

By: - September 2, 2020 5:30 am

State lawmakers have to find the money, but Republicans could dig in their heels

The judge overseeing North Carolina’s landmark Leandro school funding case signed a consent order Tuesday calling for $427 million in additional education spending to help the state meet its constitutional obligation to provide all children with the opportunity to obtain a sound basic education.

Superior Court Judge David Lee said the state must not allow the fiscal trauma caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to prevent it from providing economically disadvantaged children with a quality education.

“This is truly the first step in a comprehensive, structured approach to have the kind of quality education available for students who are so much in need of receiving a sound basic education,” Lee said of the “action plan” developed by attorneys the NC Board of Education, the Governor’s Office and the NC Department of Justice, plaintiff school districts and plaintiff-intervenors (click here to see a draft submitted to the court in June).

The Leandro case began more than a quarter-century ago after five rural school districts in low-wealth counties sued the state, arguing they couldn’t raise the tax revenue needed to provide students with a quality education. In 1997, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling, later reconfirmed in 2004, in which it held that every child has a right to a “sound basic education” that includes competent and well-trained teachers and principals and equitable access to resources.

Lee noted that the state has spent a large amount of its federal Coronavirus Relief Funds from the CARES Act on programs to support economically disadvantaged students. The money, however, is not intended to mitigate decades of unmet needs that have contributed to stubborn achievement gaps between children of color and their white peers; the long-standing fiscal shortcomings have also led to wide funding gaps between large, wealthy urban districts and their low-wealth, rural counterparts.

Superior Court Judge David Lee

More than half — $235 million — of the recommended $427 million in additional spending would be earmarked for teacher pay raises. And $144.8 million would be spent to revise the state’s school funding formula to direct more money to students with the greatest needs. Additional funds would be  available for students at risk of failing academically and for the expansion of early childhood education programs.

Lee signed a consent order in January that essentially agreed with the findings and recommendations of a comprehensive report by independent consultant WestEd, which found that the state isn’t living up to its constitutional mandate to provide children with a sound basic education.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs and defendants agreed to work together to develop an “action plan” based on WestEd’s recommendations and those from Gov. Cooper’s Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education.

The plan was due in March. Lee extended the deadline because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think the parties worked well together to understand again what was possible and we worked really hard to try to focus on areas that we all agreed would have the most immediate and most significant impact in improving the quality of education in these undeserved communities,” said Melanie Dubis, the attorney representing the Leandro plaintiffs.

Sen. Deanna Ballard (R-Watauga)

Republican lawmakers’ response indicates that it won’t easy to secure additional state money to implement the the consent order.

Sen. Deanna Ballard (R-Watauga), who co-chairs the Senate Education Committee, cited a recent interview in which the judge who previously oversaw the Leandro case criticized the focus on money to improve schools.

“Judge [Howard] Manning had it exactly right when he blasted the focus on money instead of quality,” Ballard said in a statement. “Republicans have increased education funding by $1,748 per student, but that doesn’t matter if children aren’t being taught properly. It’s so disappointing that the new Leandro judge, David Lee, wouldn’t even speak to legislators about this issue before issuing a consent order.”

The state’s post-pandemic finances will likely factor into lawmakers’ financial priorities. However, it’s worth remembering that when Lee signed the consent order, in January, to approve the framework for the plan, the state had forecast a significant budget surplus and already had $2 billion parked in reserve. The state’s unemployment rate was at a 10-year low.

Attorney Mark Dorosin

But the state’s financial health changed in the spring after the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to close and crippled what had been a more robust economy. State leaders now expect a budget shortfall of as much as $4.2 billion as a result of the pandemic and the high unemployment, declining tax revenues and unanticipated health care costs it has spawned.

Meanwhile, Mark Dorosin, an attorney representing the Charlotte chapter of the NAACP — a plaintiff-intervenor in the case.,said his clients are glad that the action plan includes resources for children with disabilities, disadvantaged students, those with limited English skills and funding for school counselors, nurses and mental health providers to help students manage the trauma caused by the pandemic.

But Dorosin is worried that academic gaps will widen during the pandemic. “One of the big issues that we wrestled with, all of us, during these negotiations was the reality that the pandemic would not just be freezing the status quo with the disparities that had existed before the court order in January, but in fact, would exacerbate the gaps and particularly for the at-risk students that the Leandro case is most primarily concerned with,” Dorosin said.

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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.