The last best chance for North Carolina’s public schools

By: - May 3, 2022 6:00 am

NC educators have rallied for better funding for years. (Photo: Clayton Henkel)

NC educators have rallied for better school funding for years. Leandro is the last best chance. (Photo: Clayton Henkel)

A few years ago, I reserved a room at the North Carolina Association of Educators Building in Raleigh for a large public luncheon. When our team arrived a half hour before the event to get set up, however, we encountered a troubling surprise.

To our alarm, we discovered that there had been a scheduling mix-up and the large room in question was occupied by a sizable assemblage of teachers who were in town for some kind of training session. Tables, chairs and materials were scattered across the room.

What to do?

Gingerly but urgently, I approached a couple of the teachers and informed them of the fast-impending crisis.

To my enormous relief and everlasting appreciation, they instantly sprang to action. “No worries!” one of the teachers replied pluckily as she and her colleagues gathered their stuff, helped rearrange the meeting room, and departed quickly for a much smaller and, undoubtedly, less adequate space.

When I expressed my deep relief and profound thanks, the teacher looked at me, smiled, and said “Hey, we’re teachers – this is what we do every day.”

And so, quite thankfully, it is. For a century and a half, public school teachers in North Carolina have been, for lack of a better description, making do.

Whether they’re presiding over overcrowded and inadequate classrooms, doing quadruple duty as classroom instructors, nurses, counselors, and social workers, dealing with cranky, demanding and often poorly informed parents, filling out reams of bureaucratic paperwork, or heading off to second jobs made necessary by their invariably lousy pay, public school teachers are among the most heroic of modern public servants.

One shudders to think about the state our schools would be in were it not for their remarkable fortitude.

All that said, one also gets the strong sense in recent years that our teaching corps’ capacity for making lemonade out of the lemons they’re so frequently dealt is waning. With repeated Republican budget cuts leaving per pupil spending below Great Recession levels, facility needs at an all-time high, alternative, better-paying employment opportunities plentiful, and a cynical and manufactured right-wing campaign to spur parental fear and outrage in full flight, a growing number of teachers (and would-be entrants into the field) are abandoning the profession.

Indeed, as is the case in many parts of the country these days, North Carolina is experiencing a serious teacher shortage as literally thousands of teachers and prospective teachers depart the profession for what they hope will be greener pastures.

At such a moment, there is almost certainly no quick or simple fix. Having spent years neglecting and/or undermining the state’s most important public institution, no amount of finger snapping from state lawmakers will suffice to turn things around overnight. See the ongoing mess in Texas – where the move to lessen teacher preparation requirements has backfired – for a classic example.

All of which brings us back to that ever-present but rapidly graying elephant in the North Carolina education policy room: the quarter-century-old Leandro school funding lawsuit. For 25 years now, learned judges at various levels of the state’s judiciary have been handing down determinations in that case that state lawmakers are failing to meet their constitutional duty to provide every child in the state with access to a sound basic education.

The latest in what now seems like umpteen such rulings occurred last week when Superior Court Judge Michael Robinson – a Republican assigned to the case by the state’s Republican Chief Justice Paul Newby – ruled that state lawmakers are $785 million short in funding the first past due installment of a comprehensive remedial plan developed by court-appointed experts.

That GOP legislative leaders continue to refuse to abide by court orders and appropriate the necessary funds is truly outrageous and the latest in a long series of lawless acts by a group that has made violating the constitution one of its signature moves.

Fortunately, the final word in this long-running drama has not yet been written. Soon, the ultimate arbiter on the meaning of the state constitution – the North Carolina Supreme Court – will weigh in on the matter yet again and, one presumes, determine once and for all whether the Leandro case has any real meaning.

If the court fails to take strong action or embarks upon another spell of dithering while right-wing dark money works overtime to end the panel’s narrow 4-3 Democratic majority in this fall’s election, more than a quarter century of litigation will be shown to have been for naught. The constitution, the protections it supposedly offers, and court itself will be greatly diminished.

If, however, the justices take the next obvious step and order the immediate dispersal of the necessary funds from the state treasury or, at the very least, hold legislative leaders in contempt for their serial inaction, North Carolina could be on the verge of a massive and transformative sea change. Rather than merely “making do,” the state’s long-suffering schools will have been delivered a last chance reprieve and could, at long last, find themselves on the road to adequacy (and maybe even excellence) in the foreseeable future.

It’s hard to imagine that the seven members of the court will ever render a more important decision.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

NC Newsline Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors and voices regular commentaries, and hosts the 'News & Views' weekly radio show/podcast.