Leandro plan provides a golden opportunity for progress and common ground on school choice

By: - February 10, 2022 12:00 pm

In January, Gov. Roy Cooper surprised many people by issuing an official proclamation recognizing School Choice Week. The proclamation had long been a priority of school choice advocates in North Carolina, such as the North Carolina Association for Public Charter Schools, which viewed the gesture as “an olive branch.”

In officially proclaiming School Choice Week, Gov. Cooper noted that “all children should have access to the highest-quality education as possible” and that “North Carolina is a home to a multitude of high-quality public and nonpublic schools from which parents can choose for their children.”

Left unmentioned in the governor’s proclamation is how the Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan will expand children’s access to higher-quality education by increasing the number of high-quality schools from which parents can choose. Such discussion was similarly absent from School Choice Week events. Choice advocates seldom mention the biggest education issue in our state.

The Leandro Plan is a product of the state’s decades-long Leandro court case. The plan provides a detailed roadmap of necessary funding and policy recommendations to provide all students with access to the “sound basic” schools that they are owed under our state constitution. The deadline is the 2028 academic year. The plan, based on extensive research by some of the country’s leading nonpartisan education experts, would substantially increase state funding of our public schools, particularly where student and community needs are greatest.

And the plan will dramatically expand and improve school choice options for North Carolina families.

That statement might come as a surprise to folks who have a passing familiarity with the Leandro case. After all, the Leandro Plan does not expand taxpayer subsidies to home schools or exclusionary private and religious schools. Nor does the plan seek to expand the number of charter schools.

Still, the plan is a boon for choice.

It is important to remember there’s a great amount of school choice occurring within our inclusive, traditional public schools. In many districts, parents have a say in which school their children attend. They can choose traditional-calendar or year-round schools. They can choose magnet schools offering innovative curricula and themes.

Choice also happens within schools, not just across them. Students choose elective courses. Foreign languages, arts, philosophy and economics are examples of electives that allow students to explore nascent interests and broaden their horizons. Some students might hone in on career and technical offerings, while other students seek Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs. When the school bell rings, some students head home, but others choose from afterschool programs, like robotics clubs or athletics.

With the additional resources provided by the Leandro Plan, more districts will be able to form magnet and other themed schools. The Plan provides funding for the creation of hundreds of new community schools that will partner with local nonprofits and government agencies to help students and their families overcome poverty-related barriers to learning.

With the additional resources provided by the Leandro Plan, more schools will be able to provide the elective courses, career and technical programs, advanced coursework, afterschool and enrichment programs that for too long have only been found in larger, wealthier communities.

These new opportunities for choice will most particularly be felt in the small, rural communities that will most benefit from the Leandro Plan’s commitment to a more adequate and equitable school funding system.

It’s not just the traditional, inclusive public school sector that will benefit from the Leandro Plan. Charter schools will see their funding levels increase just like their traditional school counterparts. Initial estimates from Every Child NC indicate that state funding for charter schools will increase 37%. That’s an underestimate, as the Leandro Plan numbers do not yet include additional funding for school employee pay increases. Once these amounts are determined, the boost to charter school funding will likely be more than 45% over current funding levels.

A 45% increase will dramatically improve the quality of instruction in a North Carolina charter sector where achievement has been too uneven and which, in recent years, has failed to provide the same level of academic growth as traditional schools. The funding will expand course offerings, enrichment programs and extracurricular activities. Additional personnel and technology resources will help schools individualize instruction.

For too long, school choice advocates have focused on the number of options outside of traditional public schools. They have measured success by the number of charter schools and the level of funding for vouchers. They have pursued a zero-sum approach to resources, seeking to shift resources from traditional public schools to charter and voucher programs.

By focusing on the number of choice options, advocates have ignored the quality of choice options. For school choice to be meaningful, it must be a choice between high-quality options. For too many North Carolina families, “school choice” means “choosing” between an under-resourced public school in a crumbling building, an under-resourced charter school in a converted big-box store, or a paltry voucher that limits your “choice” to religious school in a church basement. These aren’t the choices that most parents want. And after 27 years of the Leandro court case, we know those aren’t the choices our students deserve.

The Leandro Plan offers the choice community a new way forward. They can seize Gov. Cooper’s “olive branch” and join the movement to provide all students with the types of schools – and the types of choice – that they deserve. The Leandro Plan is the surest path towards boosting the “multitude of high-quality” schools across the state in both the traditional and the charter sectors. Smart state investment, as proposed under the Leandro Plan, is the prerequisite to providing families with meaningful choices for their children’s schooling.

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.