North Carolina’s public schools won a key victory in November when the state Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling and ordered the General Assembly to fork over millions of dollars to pay for a long overdue school improvement plan.
The decision in the landmark Leandro school funding case was highly anticipated, and many believe the most important news to emerge on the education front in North Carolina in 2022. It came as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to expose critical academic and school funding shortcomings across the state.
The Leandro case began nearly three decades ago when school districts in five low-wealth counties sued the state, claiming that children were not receiving the same level of educational opportunities as students in wealthier counties. School districts in Cumberland, Hoke, Robeson and Vance counties joined Halifax County in the lawsuit.
“Finally, after decades of prolonged litigation, the fundamental constitutional right of the children of North Carolina to receive a sound basic education and the vital resources necessary to give that right meaning is given life, enshrined and ensured,” said Rick Glazier, the director of the NC Justice Center said earlier this year. (Note: Policy Watch is a project of the Justice Center.)
The state has been down this path before when it comes to Leandro. 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.
Despite those rulings, there has been little progress toward fulfilling previous court orders. Conservative justices and lawmakers argue that the court does not have the authority to order the legislature to pay for the Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan that grew out of education consultant WestEd’s examination of the state’s public schools and the work of the Governor’s Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education.
“The people of North Carolina through their elected legislators, not an unelected county-level trial judge, decide how to spend tax dollars,” Senate leader Phil Berger said last December. “Rather than accepting responsibility for lagging achievement and outright failure, the Leandro parties insist that the pathway to student improvement is always the simple application of more money.”
Meanwhile, Leandro supporters believe the additional money for K-12 education has the potential to transform North Carolina’s public schools.
The court’s Democratic majority ruled that the legislature must fund Years Two and Three of the school improvement plan. The plan calls for high-quality teachers and principals, improvements to school finance and accountability systems, and early childhood education programs, among others.
In writing for the court’s majority, Justice Robin Hudson stated emphatically that the children of North Carolina have waited too long to receive the sound basic education promised in the North Carolina Constitution:
This Court has long recognized that our Constitution empowers the judicial branch with inherent authority to address constitutional violations through equitable remedies. For twenty-five years, the judiciary has deferred to the executive and legislative branches to implement a comprehensive solution to this ongoing constitutional violation. Today, that deference expires. If this Court is to fulfill its constitutional obligations, it can no longer patiently wait for the day, year, or decade when the State gets around to acting on its constitutional duty ‘to guard and maintain’ the constitutional rights of North Carolina schoolchildren.”
The eight-year comprehensive remedial plan calls for more than $5.6 billion in public education spending by 2028. Spending on the second and third years of the plan was $1.75 billion before lawmakers approved the recent state budget that partially funded the plan. State budget officials have estimated that nearly $800 million in the comprehensive plan is unfunded for years two and three.
The Leandro plan will likely spark many contentious moments when lawmakers return to Raleigh next month for the long session.
Teacher pay and licensure
When state education leaders weren’t debating the merits of the Leandro plan in 2022, they were closely watching the Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission (PEPSC) as it worked to revamp teacher licensure and pay structures, with hopes of addressing a teacher shortage problem fueled by low pay and tough working conditions.
A new licensing and compensation proposal backed by state education leaders would replace the state’s seniority-based teacher salary system with one that partially rewards teachers for student performance on state tests.
Supporters say the new plan would help to attract more candidates to the teaching profession, increase teacher pay, and retain veteran teachers with the promise of advancement and higher pay.
“We’re trying to address the ongoing, pervasive challenge that many teachers feel that they do all of this extra work, which is tantamount to volunteer work that they’re not compensated for,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt said in April during a State Board of Education meeting.
Teachers have pushed back against the proposal, which they contend is an unwanted move to a system of “merit pay” that places too much emphasis on student scores on standardized tests. They argue that a better strategy to recruit and retain teachers is to pay them a fair wage. The average annual teacher salary in North Carolina is $54,150. The state is ranked No. 33 nationally in average teacher pay and much lower when salaries are compared to what individuals with comparable education and experience can earn in each state’s private sector.
Justin Parmenter, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg middle school teacher and education policy commentator who writes at the website at Notes from the Chalkboard, has taken on a leading position in pushing back against the new licensing and compensation model.
“There are some serious flaws with this proposal and widespread teacher objections [to it],” Parmenter told Policy Watch. “It’s not just one loud-mouthed teacher in Charlotte who is complaining about it.”
The N.C. Association of Educators also came out against the proposal, which the State Board of Education approved at its December meeting. The plan has been forwarded to the Republican-controlled legislature and will be part of discussions around education when the new session convenes.
The future of K-12 education in North Carolina
After months of study and travel across the state, the House Select Committee on An Education System for North Carolina’s Future shared findings and recommendations in a draft report to the General Assembly that calls for redesigning the system the state uses to assess student achievement, increasing teacher pay, and shifting more power from the State Board of Education to the state superintendent.
As Policy Watch previously reported, giving more control over K-12 schools and state education policy to the superintendent has been one of the more controversial topics discussed by the committee created by House Speaker Tim Moore, (R-Cleveland), and led by Rep. John Torbett, (R-Gaston).
The current division of power between the state board and state superintendent “creates a power struggle that causes more strife than support for North Carolina’s education system,” the committee said in its report.
Voters should decide how public schools are administered, the report said.
“The Committee recommends that the General Assembly pass a constitutional amendment to allow the voters to determine the division of authority between the State Board of Education and the Superintendent of Public Instruction,” the committee said.
The state’s two-pronged approach to governing the state’s public schools has sometimes led to conflict between the state superintendent and the state board. A big power grab by the Republican-led General Assembly in 2016 led to a lengthy legal battle that ended with the state Supreme Court upholding the constitutionality of House Bill 17, which rearranged the responsibilities of the superintendent and transferred certain powers of the state board to the superintendent.
North Carolina elects a state superintendent every four years who acts as the secretary and chief administrative officer of the State Board of Education. The superintendent administers all “needed rules and regulations” adopted by the State Board through the NC Department of Public Instruction.
Meanwhile, the State Board is led by one of 11 members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the legislature. It is required by the state constitution to “supervise and administer” the public schools and funding “provided for its support.” The board also makes “rules and regulations” by which the public schools are governed.
Transferring more power to the state superintendent has been discussed before. It remains to be seen if the latest move to do so will gain traction among lawmakers.
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