Facing legislative headwinds, State Board will ask lawmakers for funds to implement Leandro plan

By: - January 24, 2023 12:00 pm
State Superintendent Catherine Truitt and State Board of Education Chairman Eric Davis

Request enjoys bipartisan support, but state Superintendent is notably silent

The State Board of Education has agreed to ask lawmakers to support the “full implementation” of a court-approved school improvement plan during 2023 budget deliberations.

The state board and other supporters of the Comprehensive Plan believe it can transform North Carolina’s system of K-12 education and nudge the state toward its constitutional mandate to provide children with sound basic education.

The legislative ask is supported by Democratic and Republican state board appointees. The board is also requesting money for other initiatives, among them: enhancement of digital teaching and learning, cybersecurity support, the elimination of student co-pays for reduced price meals, additional charter school staffing, early learning initiatives, and the establishment of a permanent Office of Learning Recovery and Acceleration.

Full implementation of the comprehensive plan, which grew out of the state’s long-running Leandro school funding lawsuit, would require lawmakers to hand over nearly $6 billion in new education funding by 2028.

The current focus is on Years Two and Three of the eight-year plan. The state Supreme Court ruled in November that the state must transfer funds to pay for those years. Recent estimates show that nearly $677 million in the comprehensive plan is unfunded for those years.

Lawmakers respond

Funding to support the “full implementation” of the comprehensive plan is certain to be challenged by the General Assembly’s Republican leadership.

In Jan. 11 remarks to open the 2023 legislative session, Senate Leader Phil Berger, a Republican from Rockingham County, stated plainly the GOP’s stance on school funding.

“We must disabuse ourselves of the notion that more money alone buys positive outcomes for our students,” Berger said. “Success in education policy is about more than hitting some arbitrary funding goal.”

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, a Wake County Democrat, told Policy Watch that Democrats are prepared to aggressively push GOP leaders to fully fund the plan.

Blue took note of Berger’s remarks about money not solving the state’s problems in K-12 education.

“We’re in a position to do it and we have the money to do it,” Blue said of fully funding the plan. “The only thing that seems to be lacking is the determination to do it from the Republican leadership.”

Senate Democratic Leader Dan Blue (D-Wake Co,)

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.

Broadly, the comprehensive plan calls on lawmakers to provide schools with a well-qualified teacher in every classroom, a well-qualified principal in every school, and the resources to provide the state’s nearly 1.5 million K-12 students with the sound basic education North Carolina’s constitution mandates.

The board’s legislative request also calls on lawmakers to invest more than $200 million to hire school nurses, social workers and psychologists. Staff shortages in those areas have been a major concern due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which exposed numerous inequities in public schools.

Blue said it will take money to provide North Carolina’s schoolchildren with the educational resources that they need to be successful students. The comprehensive plan acknowledges the need for funding to meet national guidelines and recommended ratios for instructional support staff, including school psychologists, nurses, counselors, social workers and instructional coaches for leaders of low-performing schools.

“If there’s a way we could hire those people, put them in the system without spending any more money, I’d be open to suggestions about how we do that,” Blue said. “[But] that’s what it takes to fully implement it [comprehensive plan], hiring these additional folks and putting the support structure within the school in addition to the teachers that Leandro calls for.”

Silence from Truitt

Oddly, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt, a Republican, has yet to offer a public endorsement of the plan despite the fact that GOP-appointed state board members joined Democratic colleagues to approve the board’s legislative agenda. Truitt is the secretary and chief administrative officer of the state board but does not vote on matters that come before it.

Email messages to Truitt’s spokesperson asking whether the superintendent supports the state board’s legislative request to fully implement the comprehensive plan have gone unanswered.

However, state board member Wendell Hall, who leads the Government and Community Affairs Committee, said many of the items in the state board’s legislative request are like the items Truitt has requested through the NC Department of Public Instruction.

“There are some items, we have to have more discussion concerning them,” Hall said during the board meeting in January without elaborating. “But that’s what the democratic process is all about. It’s discussing our differences and compromising and trying to come up with what’s best for students.”

The superintendent has been criticized in recent years for not supporting the comprehensive plan. In May 2021, a Capitol Broadcasting Company editorial on WRAL.com took Truitt to task for not pushing the General Assembly to fund the plan.

Kris Nordstrom, senior policy analyst

“She [Truitt] needs to set aside her partisan fealty to the current legislative leadership. She needs to make it her mission to demand Gov. Roy Cooper champion with her, and push the General Assembly to adopt and fully fund the nonpartisan, consensus comprehensive remedial action plan that will fulfill our State Constitution’s mandate to provide a quality education to every child,” the editorial stated.

Kris Nordstrom, a senior policy analyst at the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education and Law Project, said Truitt’s support could make a difference on Jones Street. (Note: NC Policy Watch is a project of the Justice Center, but maintains editorial independence.)

“One of the most pernicious lies about Leandro is that [it is] partisan simply because legislative leadership – which happens to be Republican – is opposed to the plan,” Nordstrom said. “But there’s nothing partisan about securing students’ basic constitutional rights. As a state leader, Truitt has an obligation to do everything in her power to see these rights fulfilled. Publicly supporting the plan is the bare minimum of what I would expect of her.”

Making the comprehensive plan a reality

In an interview with Policy Watch, State Board Chairman Eric Davis said the seven broad areas outlined in the comprehensive plan to improve education in North Carolina would be the state board’s strategy even if there was no court order.

“Our goal is to restate our commitment to the seven elements of the comprehensive plan and then bring forward specific requests that would go forward in the final budget,” Davis said.

The Department of Public Instruction is already doing a lot of the work identified in the comprehensive plan, Davis said. The ongoing work to turn around low performing schools, reform teacher compensation and licensing, emphasize competency-based learning, and change how school performance grades are awarded and increase career counseling can all be tied to the plan, he said.

“Our objective is to fully implement the plan, and we’ll do that by continuing to expand these programs that are underway and by adding new ones,” Davis said. “And so, we’re calling on the legislature and the governor to continue to support our full implementation of the comprehensive plan.”

Funding for the comprehensive plan could help implement several systematic improvements, including:

  • Professional development and recruitment that ensures each classroom has a high-quality teacher, and each school has a high-quality principal, who is supported with early and ongoing professional learning and provided competitive pay;
  • Financing that provides adequate, equitable, and predictable funding to school districts and adequate resources to address the needs of all schools and students, especially “at-risk students” as defined by the Leandro decisions;
  • Accountability that assesses multiple measures of student performance against and consistent with the Leandro standard;
  • Assistance to turn around low-performing schools and districts;
  • Early education that provides access to high-quality pre-Kindergarten and learning opportunities to ensure all at-risk students failure enter Kindergarten on track for success; and
  • An alignment of high school to post-secondary and career expectations, including  learning opportunities to prepare students for the workforce.

Explore the comprehensive plan by clicking here.

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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.