NC schoolchildren deserve better than childish excuses

October 1, 2021 6:00 am
Educators have been urging NC legislators for years to fulfill the state’s constitutional obligation to provide all students with access to a “sound basic education.” (Photo by Clayton Henkel)

“You can’t make me.” All of us have heard this taunt at some point during our childhood.

“You can’t make me” says so much in four short words. It says, “I have the power, not you.” It says, “your interests are far less important than mine.” It’s a statement that’s selfish and demeans the less powerful.

“You can’t make me,” also leaves certain things unsaid. Notably, “you can’t make me” fails to make a moral argument. Should I do this? Is the activity in question good or bad? Those questions don’t matter. You can’t make me.

In June, Judge W. David Lee ordered the state to increase school spending and implement several policy changes; an attempt to reach a conclusion on the 27-year-old Leandro court case. Since five low-wealth districts brought suit against the state in 1994, the courts have consistently found that the state has failed to live up to its constitutional obligation to provide all students with access to a “sound basic education.” Judge Lee’s order is an attempt to finally bring resolution to this ongoing violation of students’ constitutional rights.

The General Assembly’s response: “you can’t make me.”

The full statement from Senate leader Phil Berger’s office is, perhaps, even more childish: “If Judge Lee wants to help decide how to spend state dollars — a role that has been the exclusive domain of the legislative branch since the state’s founding — then Judge Lee should run for a seat in the House or Senate.”

This bratty reaction is all the more appalling when looking at the substance of Judge Lee’s order. At issue is whether lawmakers will implement the Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan, an effort to deliver a constitutionally-compliant school system by 2028.

The Plan is truly comprehensive.

It would expand early education programs, including expanding NC Pre-K to all eligible four-year-olds, to ensure all students begin school ready to flourish.

The state would rededicate itself to recruiting, training, and supporting excellent and diverse educators, eliminating teacher shortages and reversing trends that have seen enrollment in teacher preparation programs plummet by 30 percent. Incentives would ensure that excellent educators are no longer concentrated in schools serving wealthy communities.

Early grade classrooms would once again have a teacher assistant to help individualize instruction. All educators would be supported by nurses, counselors, social workers, and psychologists, all of whom would finally be staffed at recommended levels.

The state’s discriminatory school accountability model would be overhauled. The current system, which assigns schools stigmatizing A-F letter grades based almost entirely on school demographics, would consider a broader range of factors to more accurately identify which schools are thriving and which require additional support.

A statewide school bond would help districts address the state’s $12.8 billion school capital backlog. Districts could build new schools, renovate crumbling school buildings, and modernize HVAC systems.

Finally, school funding would become dramatically more equitable, directing resources to the districts with the greatest needs. Currently, the state provides supplemental funding on behalf of at-risk students, students with disabilities, and English learners, but at levels far below what other states provide. Equitable funding will allow districts to tackle opportunity gaps for students who have paid the highest price for the state’s historic negligence.

Yes, the Plan requires increasing state investments by several billion dollars. That may sound scary, but it is readily affordable. For example, the latest House budget proposal leaves $2.5 billion unspent in Fiscal Year ’22-23, nearly enough to fully fund the first five years of the Plan. Remaining amounts can easily be met by reversing recent tax cuts benefiting corporations and wealthy North Carolinians.

The cost of the Plan must also be weighed against the costs of continuing to deny millions of students – particularly students of color and those from low-wealth, rural counties – the opportunity to flourish.

If the Plan sounds ambitious, remember: this is what the nation’s top education experts have determined is necessary just to provide a “sound basic” education meeting the bare minimum of what our state constitution requires. The Plan’s scope is simply a reflection of how deep of a hole we are in. As the Leandro consultant’s report stated, the past decade has left North Carolina “further away from meeting its constitutional obligation…than it was when the Supreme Court of North Carolina issued the Leandro decision more than 20 years ago.”

Given the scope of the problem facing our schools and the reasonableness of the solutions presented by the Leandro Plan, the “you can’t make me” defense is indefensible.

Legislative leaders aren’t arguing that the school system is constitutional, nor have they presented an alternative plan to bring our schools into constitutional compliance. For them, the only concern is power and whether the courts can tell them what to do.

In this case, “you can’t make me” says that the constitutional rights of the state’s 1.5 million school children are far less important than the procedural rights of 170 legislators. “You can’t make me” sidesteps the obvious moral and economic cases for investing in our state’s children.

“You can’t make me” might not even be true. It’s a legal question that for now remains unresolved. Over the coming months, we will see whether the courts can force the legislature to uphold the constitutional rights of students, or whether the legislature will continue to ignore the sections of the state constitution its leaders find inconvenient.

Of course, Leandro is as much a political issue as it is a legal one. You can’t make me? If legislators keep clinging to that tired, desperate excuse, they just might find out that it’s the people of North Carolina who have far more power.

Kris Nordstrom is a senior policy analyst at the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education & Law Project.

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Kris Nordstrom
Kris Nordstrom

Kris Nordstrom is a Senior Policy Analyst with the North Carolina Justice Center's Education & Law Project. He previously spent nine years with the North Carolina General Assembly’s nonpartisan Fiscal Research Division.