Commentary, Education

Senate Republican response to Leandro report is way off-base

Since gaining control of the General Assembly in 2011, Senate Republicans have expressed concern for children’s literacy. However, a recent Senate Republican press release indicates that North Carolina’s greatest literacy needs are in the halls of the Legislative Building, where Senate Republicans are unable to comprehend the recommendations of the recently-released Leandro consultant’s report and are unaware of the past 20 years of education research.

The press release claims that increases in school spending under Republican leadership will be sufficient to meet the recommendations of the Leandro consultant’s report. In reality, the Leandro consultant’s report calls for school budget increases that are about 48 times larger than what Republicans claim they will provide over the next eight years.

As the press release shows, North Carolina’s public school budgets have increased by an average rate of about 3.3 percent per year from 2010-11 to 2018-19. The 3.3 percent figure is in nominal terms; it doesn’t account for inflation or enrollment increases. It also somewhat overstates Republican budget efforts, as state spending in 2010-11 was artificially decreased by federal stimulus funding. But let’s stick with their 3.3 percent figure.

Where the Senate Republicans’ “analysis” takes a shockingly wrong turn is when they try to read the Leandro consultant’s report, incorrectly claiming that it calls for “a cumulative K-12 budget increase of just $6.8 billion” by 2027-28. This statement betrays a fundamental inability to read.

What the report actually calls for is real ongoing resource increases that are 44.8 percent above current spending levels. The report recommends achieving this increase over an eight-year time period, such that real spending (i.e., adjusted for inflation and enrollment) will be 44.8 percent greater in 2027-28 than it is in 2019-20 (Note that Exhibit A15 shows a 44.6 percent increase in per-pupil spending, and that figures “would need to be further adjusted for inflation over the next eight years.” Additional investments in statewide systems of support bring the total figure to 44.8 percent). The report calls for additional short-term investments to bring under-performing students to grade-level, and substantial increases in early childhood funding to ensure all students arrive to school on equal footing.

In the press release, Senate Republicans argue they will increase public school budgets in nominal terms by 28 percent by 2027-28 (from $9.86 billion today to $12.66 billion in 2027-28). Over this time period, inflation is expected to increase 2.4 percent per year, while historical trends indicate student enrollment will increase 0.7 percent per year. Once these factors are taken into account, the Republicans’ projected 2027-28 public schools budget provides just a 0.9 percent increase in real spending above current budget levels.

In other words, the Leandro consultant’s report calls for sustained public school budget increases that are 48 times larger than what Senate Republicans are promising.

If that weren’t embarrassing enough, the press release goes on to reveal that Senator Deanna Ballard, chairperson of the Senate’s education budget and policy committees, is utterly unfamiliar with the last two decades’ worth of education research. “The data shows that money doesn’t buy outcomes,” per Ballard.

This is, of course, hogwash. Studies of state-level funding expansions, particularly those brought on by court orders, have uniformly found that increases in funding have improved student outcomes. Notably, a 2015 study found that court-ordered increases in school spending (just like what might be emerging from the Leandro case) cause students to attend college at higher rates and earn more money as adults. Other recent studies have found that increased state spending boosts test scores, raises graduation rates, reduces the likelihood of both poverty and incarceration in adulthood, and improves intergenerational social mobility. Similar results have been found in state-level studies in California, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, New YorkOhio, and Texas. Importantly, almost all of these studies show that the benefits from state funding increases tend to be larger for Black students and students from families with low incomes (i.e., the very children who have been denied access to a sound, basic education in North Carolina).

The recommendations within the Leandro consultant’s report have great potential to unlock the potential of all children to become flourishing, literate adults. But for these recommendations to be implemented, we will need flourishing, literate lawmakers. Based on the Senate Republicans’ latest press release, they are clearly unqualified for the job.

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