After nearly a quarter-century, will NC courts finally order lawmakers to comply with education mandate?

By: - July 7, 2021 6:00 am

Despite 1997 Leandro ruling, many NC K-12 students are not receiving the “sound basic education” the constitution guarantees them

If North Carolina lawmakers want to see what could happen if they don’t comply with a court order to adequately fund public schools, they can look to the state of Washington.

In short, it could be expensive for North Carolina.

In 2015, the Washington State Supreme Court held the state in contempt of court and fined it $100,000 a day after it failed to come up with a plan to adequately fund K-12 education, as required by a 2012 court order in McCleary v. Washington.

The fine came after threats of sanctions if lawmakers did not live up to what that state’s constitution calls a “paramount” duty to amply fund schools.  

“Given the gravity of the state’s ongoing violation of its constitutional obligation to amply provide for public education … the time has come for the court to impose sanctions,” the Washington state justices wrote. 

It took three years but in 2018, the Washington court declared that the state had fully covered the funding of basic education and lifted the contempt of court order. 

Fines levied in the Washington case funding are instructive because they show what’s possible if North Carolina lawmakers fail to “amply” fund a plan to pump an additional $5.6 billion into the state’s public schools over the next seven years.  

The Comprehensive Remedial Plan adopted by the State Board of Education and Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration provides a funding blueprint for lawmakers as they wade through budget priorities this summer.  

Cooper’s budget proposal pays for the first two years of the plan. But the Senate’s budget provides only a small percentage of what the remedial plan shows is needed. The House is now reviewing the budget. 

Kris Nordstrom, a senior policy analyst with the Education & Law Project of the NC Justice Center, said lawmakers are fresh out of excuses when it comes to meeting the state’s constitutional mandate to provide all children with sound, basic education. 

“The Senate’s decision to violate their constitutional responsibility to public school students is one driven by nothing but spite for the 1.5 million children in our schools,” Nordstrom said. “Senate leaders know how to create a decent public school system and they have more than enough money to do so. Their failure to act shows they have no intention of remedying the harm their actions have created or fulfilling their oaths of office.” 

[Note: NC Policy Watch is also a project of the NC Justice Center.]

Will the judiciary finally act?

Superior Court Judge David Lee, who is overseeing the state’s long-running Leandro school funding case, warned last month that the state must begin to implement the $5.6 billion, seven-year remedial plan or risk court sanctions.

Superior Court Judge David Lee

“If the State fails to implement the actions described in the Comprehensive Remedial Plan … ’it will then be the duty of this Court to enter a judgment granting declaratory relief and such other relief as needed to correct the wrong,’” Lee wrote in a court order approving the plan. 

Defendants in the case must submit a report by Aug. 6 detailing progress toward fulfilling “terms and conditions” of the court order. 

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. 

The Governor’s Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education was appointed by Cooper in 2017 to address findings in the Leandro case. The commission has essentially completed its work examining North Carolina’s system of public education and issuing recommendations to move the state toward its constitutional mandate. 

Members of the Governor’s Commission hope a legal showdown can be averted. 

“The goal obviously is to never get to that point,” Commissioner Rick Glazier, executive director of the NC Justice Center, said during a meeting of the body last month. 

Glazier explained that the state has acknowledged operating an unconstitutional system of public education. 

“We have a remedy that the court has now ordered that the parties have agreed to and there’s been no intervention by the legislature into that proceeding when they’ve had years of opportunity to do so,” Glazier explained. “And so, the hope now is with the judicial branch having done its duty to this point, the executive branch continuing to do its [duty]; that the legislative branch will do its constitutional duty and work together to fund the program.”

Glazier noted that New Jersey is among a group of states that have used judicial sanctions to force lawmakers to fund education plans. 

In 1981, the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered lawmakers to subsidize the state’s underfunded, urban school districts to level the playing field with wealthier suburban districts. The initial complaint was filed in Superior Court by the Education Law Center on behalf of 20 children attending public schools in Camden, East Orange, Irvington and Jersey City.  

The case, Abbott v. Burke, is considered the most important education litigation for poor and minority children since the landmark school desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education.   

The court directed the New Jersey legislature to adopt a new law to assure funding for urban school districts that was “substantially equivalent” to that in successful suburban districts and to provide supplemental programs to address extreme disadvantages of urban students. 

Despite the court order, the legal wrangling over education funding in New Jersey continued for years and remains the centerpiece of the struggle to equitably fund urban districts in that state.      

Nest steps for the Governor’s Commission

In North Carolina, the Governor’s Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education recently held its first meeting in 18 months because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leslie Winner

Commissioner Leslie Winner asked an important question. She wanted to know the panel’s “charge” moving forward, now that’s its initial work is complete. 

“I may have missed this at some point, but I’m kind of unclear about what our status as a commission is right now,” Winner said. “We got charged to make this recommendation, which we worked hard on and we made. I haven’t heard any further charge from the governor, so I’m wondering if we do have a charge from the governor that is current and what it is.” 

Responding to Winner’s question, Commission Chairman Brad Wilson said he’s spoken briefly to Gov. Cooper about the commission’s future. 

“He [Cooper] continues to be very interested in our advocacy both collectively and individually,” Wilson said. “Whether that rises to the level of a gubernatorial charge, I’ll let you decide, but I do know there’s at least an inherent expectation on his behalf that we’re remaining engaged, that we are contacting those members of the General Assembly that we know and who may value our voice to make sure they understand and keep present of mind the court order, our work, and WestEd’s work.” 

WestEd is an independent consultant hired by Judge David Lee to develop a plan to meet the mandates of the Leandro case. The Governor’s Commission’s recommendations and those in the Comprehensive Plan mirror those made by WestEd.  

Convincing Republican lawmakers to fully fund the comprehensive plan will likely prove to be an uphill fight for commission members. The two parties are hundreds of millions of dollars apart. 

According to a Justice Center analysis, the Senate budget funds $106.8 million of the $626.2 million needed to fund the first year of the plan. In the second year, the Senate’s budget covers just $129.3 million of the $998 million needed.  

An ambitious checklist

The comprehensive remedial plan focuses on several key components:  

  • Teacher and principal development and recruitment that ensures each school and classroom is staffed with high-quality teachers and principals who are supported with early and ongoing professional learning and provided competitive pay.
  • A finance system that provides adequate, equitable, and predictable funding to school districts. A key point is that districts must have adequate resources to address the needs of all North Carolina schools and students especially at-risk students as defined by the Leandro decisions. 
  • An assessment and accountability system that reliably assesses student performance against the Leandro standard and provides accountability consistent with the Leandro standard. 
  • An “assistance and turnaround” function that provides necessary support to low-performing schools and districts. 
  • A system of early education that provides access to high-quality prekindergarten and other early childhood learning opportunities to ensure that all students at-risk of educational failure enter kindergarten on track for school success.  
  • 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. 

Improving teacher diversity in North Carolina’’ public schools is also a critical element of the plan. Approximately 80% of teachers in the state are white, while most students are Black and Latinx.

Studies show that having one Black teacher in elementary schools makes Black children more likely to graduate high school and significantly more likely to enroll in college. 

Geoff Coltrane

Geoff Coltrane, senior education advisor to the Office of the Governor, noted that Fayetteville State University, N.C. A&T University and UNC-Pembroke have been selected by the NC Teaching Fellows Commission to help foster and promote a more diverse teaching workforce.  

House Bill 1096 signed into law in June 2020 allowed the program to expand from five schools to eight. The first fellows at the newly selected schools will begin in the fall 2022-23 semester.  

There were no minority-serving institutions hosting the program before June. UNC-Pembroke has long served Native Americans while Fayetteville State and N.C. A&T have historically served African Americans. 

The Teaching Fellows Program provides up to $8,250 a year for up to four years to students who agree to teach in the fields of special education or S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics) in state schools.  

Supporters believe the program can be used to incentivize Black, Latinx, and other students of color to consider teaching. 

“It’s interesting that all three [universities] that were selected are minority-serving institutions, which is a great step forward,” Coltrane 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.