House Democrats back two bills they contend will move state closer to Leandro promise

Democrats meet Tuesday, June 16, to discuss House Bill 1129 and House Bill 1130.

With permission from her teacher, Daisy Almonte took an Advanced Placement English course, not in the classroom, but in the hallway of her Sampson County high school.

“The four of us would sit in the hallway and read books and articles [teacher Jason Rinka] would assign to us while he taught the other [Honors English] class inside the classroom,” said Almonte, a recent Duke University graduate who’s headed to Harvard Law School in the fall. “He would step out to discuss the material with us, assign another passage and go back inside the classroom.”

Daisy Almonte

Almonte made her remarks during a virtual meeting called Tuesday by a group of House Democrats who support two bills  — House Bill 1129 and House Bill 1130 – they contend would help North Carolina live up to its constitutional obligation to provide children of the state with a sound basic education.

The remarks shine a light on the inequity that exists in the state’s public schools. There’s a dearth of resources available to students in rural parts of the state when compared to what’s available in wealthier, urban districts. The wealthier districts can afford to supplment state education money becasue they have larger tax bases.

Generally, HB 1129 and HB 1130  would increase supplemental funding for low-wealth school districts and eliminate the A-F grading system, which lawmakers contend harm high poverty schools and low wealth communities.

Rep. Raymond Smith, (D-Wayne), said the A-F grading system “devastates” poor communities.

“When a school is labeled an F, regardless of the education that’s going on inside that school, the school becomes stigmatized, the students becomes stigmatized, the parents of those students and the teachers of that school all wear a stigma because of a grade that does not reflect what is going on inside that school,” Smith said.

The bills would also allow high-performing teachers to receive raises to keep them in the classroom instead of opting for more lucrative administration jobs or leaving the state for better=paying teaching positions. It also allocates funds to train and keep educators through expanded early childhood educator pipeline and Teaching Fellows programs.

“We must fight to ensure that all children are given a great education and that our teachers are respected as professionals,” said Rep Rosa Gill, (D-Wake), a sponsor of HB1130. “As an educator, a mother and a legislator, I know the value of highly qualified teachers and a good education. Public education plays a vital role in creating a well-trained workforce that will help recruit and retain new businesses and give our children their best chance at success.”

Gill and several other Democratic lawmakers intend to vote against a teacher pay raise approved by the Senate on Monday. Senate Bill 818 would give teachers and instructional support personnel one-time $350 bonuses and $1,000 a year step-raises.

“We should at least give them what other state employees have been getting in the budget,” Gill said.

More than a quarter century ago, the courts ruled in Leandro vs. North Carolina that the state has an obligation provide childen with an opportunity to receive a sound basic education.

After 25 years, many families, especially those in rural counties such as the one in which Almonte attended school, continue to wait for North Carolina to live up to that constitutional obligation.

“The biggest problem facing our community schools is a lack of resources and support from the state,” said Julie von Haefen, (D-Wake). “We must fund public education to ensure every child gets the instruction and attention they need to be fully prepared for success in life.”

In 2017, Wake County Superior Court Judge David Lee hired West Ed, an independent consultant, to conduct a comprehensive study of North Carolina’s public school system and to make recommendations for improvement.

West Ed released its report in December with these recommendations:

  • Develop a teacher development and recruitment system that ensures each classroom is staffed with a high-quality teacher who is supported with early and ongoing professional learning and provided competitive pay.
  • Develop a system of principal development and recruitment that ensures each school is led by a high-quality principal who is supported with early and ongoing professional learning and provided competitive pay.
  • Create a finance system that provides adequate, equitable, and predictable funding to school districts and, importantly, adequate resources to address the needs of all North Carolina schools and students, especially at-risk students as defined by the Leandro decisions.
  • Develop an assessment and accountability system that reliably assesses multiple measures of student performance against the Leandro standard and provides accountability consistent with the Leandro standard.
  • Create an assistance and turnaround function that provides necessary support to low-performing schools and districts.
  • Provide a system of early education that provides access to high-quality pre-kindergarten and other early childhood learning opportunities to ensure that all students at risk of educational failure, regardless of where they live in the State, enter kindergarten on track for school success.
  • Develop an alignment of high school to postsecondary and career expectations, as well as the provision of early postsecondary and workforce learning opportunities, to ensure student readiness to all students in the State.

Lee signed a court order in January ordering state leaders to “work expeditiously and without delay to take all necessary actions” to improve North Carolina’s public schools.

Lawmakers said HB 1129 and HB 1130 can move the state closer to meeting the recommendations in the West Ed report .

“The commonsense actions outlined in this legislation ensure that our schools and communities work together to prepare each child for success in life,” von Haefen said. “When our students and teachers have the resources that they need, North Carolina will have an educational system that we can be even more proud of.”

Meeting the state’s constitutional obligation will cost billions of dollars. West Ed put it at approximately $8 billion over 10 years.

But the state, recently flush with cash, is now expecting a $4 billion shortfall due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Senate leader Phil Berger warned in May that money will be tight.

“Our Constitution does not provide for judges to appropriate dollars,” Berger said. “We’ve said on multiple occasions that if judges want to get into the field of appropriating, they need to run for the legislature.

Berger added: “We’ll see what the order is, but again we cannot spend money that we don’t have.”

Gill said Tuesday that she believes the state can find the money to pay for  the items in the bills.

“If we can put this together, and all of us buy into it, and we decide we want to make it a priority, I think we can find the funds,” Gill said.

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