Kris Nordstrom: Legislators must act on plan to deliver students the schools they are owed

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 6, 2022

For nearly three decades, state lawmakers from both parties have violated the basic constitutional rights of North Carolina’s children.

In 1994, five school districts sued the state under the Leandro court case. Since then, the courts have consistently found that state lawmakers have failed to provide students with access to the quality of education promised under our state constitution.

Lawmakers’ past inaction could partly be blamed on not knowing how to fix the problem. Judges overseeing Leandro lamented North Carolina’s middling test scores, but offered few concrete recommendations for improving performance.

That changed in 2017 when the state decided to stop fighting the case, turning to some of the nation’s top nonpartisan education experts to figure the necessary steps to provide students with the education they are owed.

These researchers found that North Carolina – while never meeting its constitutional responsibilities to students – was once making progress. During the ’90s, targeted investments boosted test scores and no other state did a better job in narrowing achievement gaps.

Unfortunately, North Carolina’s commitment to students moved backwards over the past decade. State leaders granted billions in tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy, while our school funding effort – the amount we spend on schools relative to the size of our economy – fell to the worst in the nation. They denigrated teachers even as enrollment in teacher training programs has fallen by nearly half. And they expanded vouchers and charter schools that have failed to boost student success.

This decade of misguided policy has heightened the longstanding, systemic challenges at the heart of the Leandro case.

Of course, the COVID pandemic has raised the stakes, particularly for students with disabilities, students of color, English learners and students from families with low incomes. While some of today’s challenges are new, the goals remain largely unchanged. That is, we must invest in our schools to create welcoming, affirming communities that support the flourishing of children.

What does that look like in practice? It means:

• High-quality pre-kindergarten programs that help students arrive to school on equal footing, ready to learn;

• Repairing crumbling school buildings and improving air quality;

• Teacher assistants, curriculum and training to support early-grades literacy.

• Curriculum at all grade levels that is challenging, engaging, and that reflects and affirms students’ identities;

• Art, music, sports and after-school programs that make school fun while unlocking students’ potential;

• Nurses, psychologists, counselors, and social workers staffed at industry-recommended levels to address students’ growing needs and allow teachers to focus on academic instruction.

• Paying educators a competitive wage and offering opportunities for continuous career development.

These common-sense solutions are all part of the Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan. The Leandro Plan provides detailed, step-by-step recommendations to finally students the education they are owed by 2028. The plaintiffs, the governor, the State Board of Education, and the judge have all signed-off on the plan. Unfortunately, General Assembly leaders have refused to fulfill their constitutional responsibilities to students.

Some may excuse legislative inaction by pointing to the recent influx of federal funds. These funds will certainly help, but they are time limited. Federal funds should focus on equipment and infrastructure to ensure our schools can safely remain open, tutoring and summer programs to help recovery from pandemic-related academic losses and retention bonuses to stem the tide of resignations.

In contrast, the Leandro Plan addresses systemic challenges predating the pandemic.

Educators in Rowan-Salisbury Schools are doing amazing work with limited resources. Despite these efforts, too few RSS students are graduating ready for postsecondary opportunities. Like most districts, the main challenge is a lack of resources.

Since 2009, state funding for public schools has increased 28%. But costs have risen even faster. Changes in enrollment, teacher salaries and benefit costs mean that districts are facing a 4.5% reduction in available resources since 2009. Meanwhile, academic expectations and student needs have risen.

Flexibility and innovation won’t solve these problems. Charter school performance has largely mirrored or lagged that of traditional public schools. Without additional resources, RSS will never see the results that our community demands and that our students deserve.

If implemented, the Leandro Plan will increase funding in RSS by more than $2,500 per student, 40% above current state funding levels. These resources will allow all RSS schools to become the welcoming, affirming communities that our students are explicitly owed under our state constitution.

We just need state lawmakers to act. The Salisbury Human Relations Council’s “Supporting Public Education Forum” on March 26 will let community members know how to join the statewide effort to finally provide our students with the education they are owed.

Nordstrom is a senior policy analyst with the North Carolina Justice Center. He is a member of Every Child NC, a  coalition that advocates for every child’s constitutional right to a sound, basic education. Read more about the March 26 event in Tuesday’s Post.