Leandro advocates urge lawmakers to focus on funding for sound basic education

Brian Link

Brian Link was fired up.

You could hear it in the East Chapel Hill social studies teacher’s voice Wednesday as he discussed Leandro, the state’s long-running school funding lawsuit.

For more than 25-plus years, Link said, members of the General Assembly from both parties have continually failed to follow the North Carolina Constitution, which requires the state to provide its children with sound basic education.

“Members of both parties have found it easier to do what some of the leaders said is happening in other areas of the budget, just kick the can down the road,” said Link, a member of N.C. Association of Educator’s board of directors.

Link made his comments during a press conference held in front of the Legislative Building in downtown Raleigh. The event was staged by Communities for the Education of Every Child NC as part of its “Leandro Advocacy Day.”

The group, which includes the NC Justice Center, planned visits with lawmakers and lunch at John Chavis Park later in the day. Policy Watch is a project of the Justice Center.

Link criticized state budget adjustments lawmakers revealed Tuesday because they don’t include money to fully fund the Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan. At issue for him, was nearly $800 million Superior Court Judge Michael Robinson said the state owes the public schools to meet its Leandro obligation this year.

“By all accounts, the budget revealed yesterday still falls hundreds of millions of dollars short of the required threshold spending set forth by Leandro just for the upcoming year,” Link said.

A Justice Center analysis shows a $443.1 million shortfall between the Leandro spending plan for 2022-23 and the budget proposal released by lawmakers Tuesday.

Leandro v. State of North Carolina was brought in 1994 by five school districts in low-wealth counties that argued their districts did not have enough money to provide children a quality education.

In 1997, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling, later reconfirmed in 2004, in which it held that every child has a right to a “sound basic education” that includes competent and well-trained teachers and principals and equitable access to resources.

The case is going back to court. The North Carolina Supreme Court has scheduled oral arguments for the week of Aug. 29 to determine whether the state can be forced to fork over an additional $785 million to public schools.

Gayle Headen

Gayle Headen, executive director of Wake County Smart Start, said early childhood education has been woefully underfunded in North Carolina. She said there’s a severe early childhood teacher shortage as a result.

“The shortage of qualified teachers has grown much worse during the pandemic and is now a full-blown crisis,” Headen said. “Classrooms are empty because there aren’t teachers to hire.”

Deborah Maxwell, president of the North Carolina State Conference of Branches of the NAACP, said that all students in urban centers and rural communities are entitled to sound basic education.

Deborah Maxwell

“Your education should not be dictated by where you live, or as we say, by your zip code,” Maxwell said. “It should be dictated by the fact that you live within the state of North Carolina.”

Maxwell noted that the state has one of the nation’s leading systems of higher education and the second-highest number of historically black colleges and universities.

However, the state’s system of public schools is “regressive” because districts are not funded equitably, Maxwell said.

“We cannot expect to have super, mega-companies come here when we cannot totally, properly across this state educate our students,” Maxwell said. “I should be able to take my grandchild and go from one county to another and know that the same level of services and treatment is available and affordable, but unfortunately it is not.”

Liana Santillan

Lliana Santillan, the executive director of El Pueblo, said lawmakers have spent too much time this year on divisive, “unnecessary” issues, such as House Bill 755, which would ban instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in Kindergarten through third grade.

Santillan said that “the time and energy that our legislators have spent on harmful bills such as HB 755, North Carolina’s ‘Don’t say gay bill,’ would be better spent on improving children’s access to high-quality education.

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Leandro advocates urge lawmakers to focus on funding for sound basic education