Present day controversies are front and center at legislative hearing on the future of public education

By: - April 27, 2022 6:00 am
Rep. John Torbett (R) presided over the meeting in Carteret County. (Photo by Greg Childress)

Committee chair challenges the relevance of state’s landmark Leandro school funding case

The state’s decades-old school funding case, Leandro, could become “moot,” depending on decisions by a House select committee charged with “reinventing” North Carolina’s public education system, State Rep. John Torbett, a Gaston County Republican and chairman of the committee, told Policy Watch on Monday.

Torbett made his remarks in Carteret County during a public meeting of the House Select Committee on an Education System for North Carolina’s Future. It was the committee’s fourth session to receive public comment on how to “reinvent” public education.

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 case is again winding its way through the courts after Superior Court Judge David Lee, who was overseeing the case until last month, ordered the state to dip into reserves for $1.8 billion to pay for two years of a school improvement plan.

Special Superior Court Judge Mark Robinson is now in charge of the case.

On Tuesday, WRAL News reported that Judge Robinson ruled that North Carolina is underfunding its public schools by $785.1 million in the current budget. Robinson said the state must fund the remainder of the $1.8 billion to fund two years of the Comprehensive Remedial plan to improve schools but did not say how it should do so, the news outlet reported. The school improvement plans calls for $5.6 billion in new education spending over eight years.

Leandro is the older system,” Torbett said when asked about the landmark case and the funding plaintiffs have so long sought. “I’m not going to focus on the older system. I’m focusing on building a system from today forward. The new system would fund everything appropriately.”

Current debates dominate the discussion

At Monday’s meeting, the mostly white crowd that gathered in Morehead Primary School’s gymnasium focused more on the political upheaval that has enveloped public schools in recent months than on developing a new system of public education.

Several of the half dozen or so speakers forcefully denounced critical race theory, social-emotional learning and what they contend is the introduction of “pornographic” and other age-inappropriate material into classrooms.

Critical thinking, civics and our state and U.S. constitutions are not fully taught in schools, charged Stephanie Krzich, a Carteret County parent.

“History has been reframed,” Krzich said. “Other educational ideals and materials such as critical race theory, ‘The 1619 Project,’ gender transitioning programs and pornographic materials have made their way into North Carolina schools.”

Critical race theory (CRT) is an advanced academic discipline that examines how racism has shaped American law and public policy. Most educators say it is not taught in K-12 schools.

“The 1619 Project” is The New York Times Magazine’s Pulitzer Prize-winning educational initiative that reexamines the legacy of slavery in the U.S. That project, along with social-emotional learning — the process of developing the self-awareness, self-control and interpersonal skills needed for success in school, work and life — have become wedge issues for conservatives as they prepare for midterm elections.

Krzich urged the committee to require schools to reemphasize the Student Citizen Act of 2001, which required school boards to develop and implement “character education” instruction.

Judith Armento, a retired early childhood teacher, received a standing ovation after explaining her belief that the structure of the nation’s education system had changed decades ago from focusing on cognitive development to focusing on the social development of children.

“The social development of our children should be left to the family with the moral principles of each family,” Armento said. “It should not be left to the educators.”

In contrast, Lela Faye Rich, a retired educator, strongly rebuked attempts to restrict what can be taught in schools.

Rich attended segregated schools in Halifax County where, she said, she and her white peers never discussed race. The same was true of her experience at Wake Forest University, she said.

“So, I am wanting my children and grandchildren to understand the entire history of the United States — that seems fair,” Rich said. “If I was teaching, that is what I would want to teach, the history of all of us, all Americans.”

Pointing out that there are no teachers on the committee, Rich said educators should ultimately decide what is taught in North Carolina’s classrooms.

“I would not begin to tell my medical doctor what he’s going to do to treat me,” Rich said. “I do not want the state telling educators what to teach in their classrooms. Educators are professional people. They know what to do. We need to trust them to do it.”

Of homeschools and pre-K

Former State Sen. Rick Horner

Former State Sen. Rick Horner, a Republican from Wilson County, said a reinvention of public schools must include provisions to allow homeschooled students to participate in programs at traditional public schools.

“Open these up to the 100,000 homeschooled kids where they could come here [public schools] and maybe participate in sports or be part of the band or find something here so when they ride by they can say, ‘Well that’s my school too’,” Horner said.

The N.C. Department of Public Instruction reported in March that there are nearly 180,000 children being homeschooled in North Carolina.

Carteret County Schools Superintendent Rob Jackson said a “reimagined” system of public education must include universal pre-K to give every child a chance to succeed.

Superintendent Rob Jackson

Jackson said that some students get a head start on their education because they are born into circumstances in which someone reads to them every night, makes books and other printed materials available, and takes them on trips to museums and historic sites.

There are other children who are not as fortunate, Jackson said.

“When those children arrive in Kindergarten, if they’ve not had those opportunities, they arrive behind their peers, and so we turn to remediation and tutoring, and there’s a place for that … but we also understand this; when we pull a student out for remediation, the rest of the class isn’t sitting there waiting for them to catch up so they can all go forward,” Jackson said.

More meetings to come

Despite previous reports to the contrary, Torbett said Monday’s session was not the final one. Others are planned but the locations haven’t been determined, he said.

So far, Republican voters have outnumbered Democrats in each of the four counties to which the committee has traveled.

In Carteret County, Republican voters outnumber Democrats more than 2 to 1. The small coastal county has 24,287 Republican voters and 9,722 Democrats. Democratic voters are also outnumbered in Union County, Randolph and Gaston counties, the three other host counties.

Torbett said Mecklenburg County, a Democratic stronghold, is being considered as a host county for a future committee meeting.

House Democratic leader Robert T. Reives II

Representation matters in North Carolina’s public schools where Blacks and Latinos make up more than half of the students enrolled in the state’s public schools, said House Democratic leader Robert T. Reives II.

“I believe that a committee focused on the future of education in North Carolina should be visiting communities that are representative of this state today, and where this state is headed,” Reives said. “It is just as important to understand what is and isn’t working in our larger, urban counties. North Carolina is a diverse state, and we should be listening to these communities as well when we look at how best to shape the future of education.”

In February, State Board of Education member James Ford raised concerns about the makeup of the nine-member panel, which at the time only included one Black lawmaker.

“If they didn’t consider people of color as they composed the committee, why should I be confident they’ll consider students of color as part of the future of schools?” Ford asked.

Rep. Evelyn Terry

Rep. Evelyn Terry, a Forsyth County Democrat, had been the panel’s lone Black member. Torbett has since added another Black member, Rep. Howard J. Hunter III, a Democrat from Hertford County.

Meanwhile, students of color are the majority of the 1.37 million students enrolled in the state’s traditional public schools. Combined they make up roughly 54% of students who attend public schools. About 44% of students are white.

“If we want to understand the needs of our schools across the state, we are going to need to make a concerted effort to visit urban, suburban and rural areas alike,” Reives said.

More than 213 citizens have shared ideas about how to improve the state’s public schools via an online portal the committee established.

Below is a sampling of some of the submissions:

Eudy Rebekah, Mineral Springs — “The reason you have so many homeschooling families is because there’s already too much government in the schools teaching topics we don’t want our children exposed to. As an American citizen, it’s my right to decide how and what I teach my children.”

Lynda Strand, Wake County — “I’d want to see a system where teachers are adequately paid from the start ($50,000 and incrementally rewarded yearly for experience and longevity). I want a system where all children have access to the magnet school themes we see now (electives, language immersion, stem, etc.) I want to see all schools funded appropriately as the Leandro ruling states they should be.”

Carolyn White, Chapel Hill — “I encourage you to fully fund public education in NC as stipulated in the Leandro case. This is especially important as students statewide struggle to catch up on learning lost during the pandemic. We are also facing a serious teacher shortage. The money invested in the education of our children will benefit our entire state. Please decrease funding for vouchers and instead fully fund public schools.”

Ariel Haas, Black Mountain — “I would love for North Carolina to continue to support the homeschooling families. We work very hard to do right by our children. As a high school teacher myself for 17 years at a top 50 school in the United States, I know what education looks like from all angles. Don’t put more restrictions and hoops to jump through on homeschool families. It takes a lot of work as it is without more bureaucracy.”

Robin Livingston, Apex — “I would like to see all of history taught, not just the pretty parts. I would like to see good books read, not just the ones I agree with. I would like to see more writing, and more math. I’d like to see more arts and electives. I’d like to see Spanish taught as a requirement every year, so kids have the opportunity to be bilingual. Most countries require English, so most kids worldwide can speak at least 2 languages. We should, too. And, comprehensive sex ed should be required by 9th grade. My older kids graduated without learning anything about procreation in school. It’s absurd that we don’t do this. I got a full sex ed curriculum in the early ‘80s in a rural school in Colorado. Lastly, fund this stuff. Pay teachers, and stop treating them like the help. Stop screwing around with Leandro and fund our schools.”

Heather Soter, Farmville — “More charter schools, more choice. I might be able to send my kid to a Christian school where standards are still high. She might actually get to graduate reading on level. I have nothing good to say about Pitt County schools: no standards, no discipline, underpaid staff, understaffed and crumbling infrastructure in some areas.”

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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.