First-year ‘action steps’ to fulfill promise of Leandro ruling carries a $427M price tag

First-year “action steps” to put North Carolina on the path to fulfilling the 25-year-old promise of the state’s landmark school funding lawsuit — Leandro vs. State of North Carolina – will cost $427 million in additional state funding next school year, according to attorneys in the longstanding case.

The lawyers for the defendants and plaintiffs agreed that’s the amount the state must spend in just the first year enact recommendations in a recent West Ed report. The report’s authors reached the sobering conclusion that North Carolina is failing to fulfill its constitutional obligation to provide all children with access to a sound basic education.

Superior Court Judge David Lee, who is overseeing the case, asked West Ed, an independent consulting firm, to take a deep dive into North Carolina’s public schools and to make recommendations for improvement.

The consultant’s report initially led media organizations to report that it would cost the state $8 billion over the next eight years to meet its constitutional obligation to North Carolina’s students. A revised funding report placed the cost at $4.3 billion. The consultants also called for increasing investments in early childhood education by $1.2 billion.

After reviewing West Ed’s report, Lee remarked that “North Carolina’s PreK-12 public education system leaves too many students behind, especially students of color and economically disadvantaged students. As a result, thousands of students are not being prepared for full participation in the global, interconnected economy and society in which they will live, work and engage as citizens.”

In January, Lee signed a Consent Order negotiated by the State Board of Education, the Office of the Governor and N.C. Department of Justice, the plaintiff school districts and the plaintiff-intervenors that directed them to jointly develop “action steps” and funding recommendations for lawmakers to consider.

More than half of the additional K-12 funding  — $237 million — would be used to ensure every classroom has a “qualified and well-prepared teacher,” as recommended in the West Ed report.

Increasing teacher diversity through expansion of  the North Carolina Teaching Fellows program is also emphasized in the plan.

The  program is a competitive, merit-based, loan forgiveness program that provides up to $8,250 annually for up to four years to college students who agree to teach in the fields of special education or S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics) in state schools.

Currently, the program is available at five universities. The attorneys want to increase the number to eight and to include Historically Black Colleges and Universities. There are no HBCUs among the five existing programs.

Education experts see teacher diversity as critical to the success of children of color.  A study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that one Black teacher in elementary school not only makes children more likely to graduate high school but also enroll in college.

Approximately 80% of teachers in North Carolina are white while slightly more than half of its students are Black, Hispanic, American Indian, Asian and mixed race.

Daisy Almonte, a recent Duke University graduate who’s headed to Harvard Law School in the fall, told a group of House Democrats on Tuesday that the addition of a Hispanic college counselor at her rural, Sampson County high school helped to ease the isolation she sometimes felt.

“I saw myself reflected in her,” Almonte said. “[She] motivated and challenged me to apply to my dream university.”

Before, school and family felt like separate worlds, Almonte said.

“My schools didn’t have lessons or teachers that I could connect with culturally and it impacted my ability to see myself succeed professionally,” she said.

Other “action steps” call for placing a “qualified and well-prepared” principal in every school and recreating the state’s finance system in a manner that more equitably distributes funding, particularly to at risk students in high poverty districts.

Mike Dorosin, managing attorney for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which serves as counsel to the intervenors in the case, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg NAACP, noted that the action plan includes increased funding for students with disabilities, disadvantaged students and for students with limited English proficiency.

Dorosin said attorneys for the plaintiffs also secured increased funding for support personnel that will be “critical” due to the trauma students have experienced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This $40 million in this first year for counselors, nurses, social workers and psychologists,” Dorosin said. “And this money, like all of the funds I’ve been describing, and throughout the Phase 1 implementation plan, at all levels, is to prioritize at risk students.”

The coronavirus forced Gov. Roy Cooper to close school buildings in mid-March.

Social workers, psychologists and other support personnel told Policy Watch in May that they expect students to return to schools, possibly in mid-August, needing more of their services.

Dorosin made his comments during the virtual launch of a new coalition called Communities for the Education of Every Child NC that is demanding the state “immediately and aggressively” comply with its constitutional duty to provide a sound basic education.

The North Carolina Justice Center is a member of the coalition. Policy Watch is a project of the Justice Center.

The Rev. Paul Ford, senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Winston-Salem and board member of Action4Equity, said equity in education will be a defining issue of our time.

“It’s still the case that far too many black and brown children and poor children, do not have access to and are not provided with the resources necessary to ensure that they receive the sort of education that will enable them to prosper, to achieve and to meet the standards of excellence we know that are so critical for success in this world,” Ford said.

He said the coalition will advocate, protest in the streets and use every legal means at its disposal to “flood” high poverty schools with the resources needed to erase inequities that have plagued them for as long as anyone can remember.

“Equity is not about making things equal,” he said. “It’s about making things right.”

Letha Muhammad, director of the Education Justice Alliance, a nonpartisan grassroots organization concerned about the impact of harsh discipline polices that lead to unfair suspensions of Black and Hispanic students, said the state must stop disinvesting in public education.

“Here’s an opportunity for us, at this moment of reckoning that we find ourselves in,” Muhammad said. “You can go down the same road we’ve been on that led us to this moment, that allows for disinvestment in communities of color or we can take a new path. We’re calling our General Assembly to a new path, down a new road that will fully fund education, so we not only reach our constitutionally mandate of a sound basic education for all North Carolina children, but reach beyond that.”

Susan Book, a parent advocate for Save Our Schools NC and mother of an autistic child, said battles for resources and services left her “angry, tired and frustrated.”

“Still, I was lucky because my son didn’t face racism during this process,” said Book, who is white.

Book said the state must allow school districts to identify more special needs students so they can receive needed services. The state will only pay for up to 12.75% of students in a district identified as special needs.

“Once a kid is identified, the law mandates services and accommodations for that child,” Book said. “These cost schools money and there isn’t enough to go around.”

The coaltion’s launch followed a Tuesday press conference by a group of House Democrats who back two bills — House Bill 1129 and House Bill 1130 – they say would help North Carolina live up to its constitutional obligation to provide children of the state with a sound basic education.

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