Leandro report: More funding, quality teachers needed to ensure sound, basic education

An action plan designed to help North Carolina meet its constitutional obligation to provide school children with a “sound, basic education” calls for a sharp increase in school funding to close a stubborn achievement gap between economically disadvantage students and their better-heeled peers.

The cost of such a major undertaking will be expensive.

In a voluminous report released Tuesday, researchers with WestEd, an independent nonprofit research group, placed the cost at nearly $7 billion over the next eight years.

“The big question is whether the judge orders the legislature to put money into the plan,” said State Rep. Graig Meyer, a Democrat from Orange County. “We can’t provide an education of the caliber the report calls for on a shoe-string budget.”

Superior Court Judge David Lee directed WestEd to conduct extensive research into the state’s public education system and to bring back recommendations to ensure all students receive a quality education.

The much-awaited report comes nearly a quarter-century after five rural school districts 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 stepped in and held that every child has a right to a “sound, basic education under the state constitution.

Ensuring that right will require significant short-term and long-term investments, the researchers concluded.

“Educating today’s students to meet high standards and to be successful in this century requires new investments in instructional tools and technology and the educator workforce and greater access to educational opportunity for all,” the researchers said.

To meet those higher standards, North Carolina must begin by revising the state funding model to provide adequate, efficient and equitable resources, place a qualified and well-prepared teacher in every classroom and a well-prepared and qualified principal in every school.

“A deep ongoing commitment and wise investments are vital to building and maintaining the required capacity at the school, district, regional, and state levels,” the researchers wrote. “The future of the state hangs in the balance.”

To ensure all children receive a quality education, North Carolina must also:

  • Provide at-risk students with the opportunity to attend high-quality early childhood program.
  • Direct more resources, opportunities and initiatives to economically disadvantaged students.
  • Revise student testing and the school accountability system.
  • Build an effective regional and statewide support system to help improve low-performing and high-poverty schools.
  • Convene an expert panel to help the Court monitor state policies, plans, programs and progress.

“We know that some will resist this long-overdue call to invest in the critical resources and supports our children desperately need,” Rick Glazier, executive director of the N.C. Justice Center and a member of the Governor’s Commission on Access to Sound, Basic Education.

(Policy Watch is a project of the N.C. Justice Center.)

But Glazier said he’s confident that after learning more about the WestEd study that North Carolinians will demand lawmakers “act quickly to remedy the harm documented and to provide all children with the education to which they are constitutionally-entitled.”

Gov. Roy Cooper said the state’s economic vitality depends on every child receiving a quality education.

“Your zip-code shouldn’t determine your future, and this groundbreaking report shows that we need to make significant investments in our public schools, strengthen our teacher and principal pipelines, and greatly expand early childhood learning opportunities for our most at-risk students,” Cooper said.

Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Teachers, said the WestEd report validates claims frequently made by parents and educators that North Carolina’s schools are underfunded.

“The current level of investment being made by the state in public education is not keeping pace with educational needs, and our students, particularly in lower-income areas of the state, are getting left behind,” Jewell said.

Eric Davis, chairman of the State Board of Education, said the WestEd shows there is much work for North Carolina to do to live up to its constitutional promise.

“The findings and analysis in the WestEd Report will help the state and the state board improve North Carolina’s PreK to 12 public school system and make decisions that benefit all public school students, especially those who are most vulnerable and at risk,” Davis said.

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