Commentary, Education

Long-awaited Leandro report calls for setting new course for North Carolina’s schools

Today, the much-anticipated Leandro report was made public, giving North Carolina parents, educators, students, and education advocates have an important new roadmap for ensuring that our public schools provide every child with the education they deserve.

The report – a collaborative effort from some of the nation’s leading education experts – is a comprehensive examination of North Carolina’s public school system. The report’s recommendations have the potential to fundamentally change the direction of our state by unleashing the potential of all children to become flourishing adults, ready to contribute to a healthier, happier, and more prosperous North Carolina.

What is Leandro?

Leandro is a 25-year long court case. Throughout the case, the courts have consistently found that North Carolina has been failing to meet its most fundamental obligation under our State Constitution: providing every child a meaningful opportunity to receive a sound basic education, backed by adequate funding and resources in every public school. Additional background on the case can be found here.

Where did this report come from?

In 2017, parties to the case (the state defendants and the Leandro plaintiffs) agreed that North Carolina had been failing its children for far too long, and that the state needed a clear, comprehensive roadmap to providing a sound basic education that benefits all children. The court-appointed consultants (WestEd, in collaboration with the Learning Policy Institute and NC State’s Friday Institute) initially submitted the report to the court in June of 2019. The report was confidential until its release today.

What does the report say?

The report confirms what North Carolinians have been saying for years: The state has consistently failed to give every child in this state access to the education they deserve. Specifically:

  • A new approach is needed: While North Carolina was once making progress towards meeting its constitutional responsibilities, the past decade’s actions have left our state “further away from meeting its constitutional obligation to provide every child with the opportunity for a sound basic education than it was when the Supreme Court of North Carolina issued the Leandro decision more than 20 years ago.”
  • Providing children with what they are owed requires significant new investment: Current levels of school funding (North Carolina ranks 48th in terms of school funding effort) are inadequate to ensure all students are achieving at grade level.
  • We must direct resources where they’re needed most: Our funding formulas need to do a better job of prioritizing higher-need students and under-resourced communities.
  • More needs to be done to put qualified, well-prepared and diverse teachers and principals in every school: Educators need competitive pay, early-career support programs, professional development, and opportunities to collaborate and lead.
  • Scarcity of early-learning opportunities is leaving too many students unprepared to start school: Both Smart Start and NC Pre-K are effective programs, but funding must be restored and expanded to ensure all students enter kindergarten ready to learn.
  • High-poverty schools lack the resources to help students overcome out-of-school conditions that create barriers to learning: High-poverty schools should be provided the resources necessary to expand learning opportunities and implement community school models providing health and social services, youth and community development, and community engagement. Struggling schools need state-level support similar to the District and School Support teams eliminated by the General Assembly in recent years.
  • Our testing and accountability system needlessly stigmatizes high-poverty schools, rather than providing useful information about educational effectiveness: Our accountability system should instead measure schools’ progress in providing each child a sound basic education by rewarding growth in student performance and highlighting school climate and equality of resources and learning opportunities.

The report contains significantly more detail. While the report’s recommendations may appear ambitious, it’s important to remember that these steps represent the bare minimum of what it takes to for the state to provide students with the education they deserve.

What happens now?

It is now incumbent upon state leaders to implement the report’s requirements and finally fulfill their constitutional responsibility to provide a quality education to every child. Judge Lee will likely follow up with a court order, requiring the General Assembly to take certain steps.

Based on similar cases from other states, a court order alone is likely to be insufficient to compel the lawmakers to meet their constitutional responsibilities. Over the next weeks and months, it is vital that North Carolinians across our state study and learn about the report’s findings and recommendations. The Justice Center will continue to analyze the report to ensure citizens across the state are equipped with the knowledge and context to push our lawmakers to prioritize these reforms in the upcoming 2020 legislative session.

Commentary

Rogue state superintendent keeps breaking the law

DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

The state schools superintendent keeps breaking the law. Strangely, nobody at the General Assembly seems to care. Similarly, the capital press corps has shown no interest in holding his rogue actions to account.

Johnson’s lawbreaking centers around two rounds of iPad purchases, neither of which were conducted in accordance with state law.

Johnson’s spending spree on iPads first became news in August 2018 when he announced a $6.6 million purchase of iPads to support early grade literacy. That sounded like good news. But as Policy Watch’s Billy Ball reported, the purchase was highly unethical. The purchase came on the heels of Johnson attending an Apple-funded junket to California where he was wined and dined by Apple executives. Additionally, the no-bid contract for 24,000 iPads violated state protocol by failing to get approval from the Department of Information Technology, the agency that oversees tech services for state agencies.

But what went mostly unreported was that Johnson had no authority to spend the money he used to purchase those iPads. State law – put into place at Johnson’s request – clearly states that the money was to be distributed to school districts so that they could make purchases that best meet their needs.

Section 2.6 of S.L. 2017-197, the 2017 Budget Technical Corrections bill, says that unspent funds from the Read to Achieve program were to be distributed to school districts (“shall be allotted to local school administrative units”). In an August appearance on WRAL’s “On the Record,” Johnson claimed this provision is what gave him the authority to purchase iPads on his own and give them to districts.

At the time of Johnson’s first round of iPad purchases, the state had already provided districts with the devices necessary to carry out Read to Achieve. Despite the lack of a pressing need, most districts decided to keep the iPads sent to them. But about 10 percent of the iPads were returned to the state, where they sat in a warehouse for over a year.

One year later, Johnson decided to break the law again to buy even more iPads. After all, what’s the best way to respond to charges of quid pro quo? Even more quo, clearly.

This time, Johnson used a different source of funds to buy even more products from the company who paid for his trip to Cupertino. At the end of the 18-19 fiscal year, there was money left over from funds appropriated to support the Department of Public Instruction, a state agency. Johnson used these funds to buy 800 additional iPads. Based on nothing more but Johnson’s whim, 200 of the iPads were sent to Ocracoke School, and 100 were sent to Junius H. Rose High School in Greenville.

One problem: it’s illegal for agency heads to simply give away state property.

Article 3A of G.S. 143 requires any excess state-owned surplus property to be distributed via the State Surplus Property Agency. That agency can then sell the property or determine ways to distribute the property to tax-supported or nonprofit tax-exempt organizations. The iPads in question were clearly state-owned, as they were bought by a state agency with state funds. And they were clearly surplus, as they weren’t needed by anyone at DPI. Distribution of these iPads at the whim of a state agency head clearly falls in violation of these laws.

This might just sound like me dinging a guy for failing to dot his i’s and cross his t’s. But the laws are in place for a reason. Imagine a different scenario in whcih Johnson was giving away cash instead of iPads. Imagine if the teachers receiving these iPads were political supporters or were personal friends of the Superintendent. What if he unilaterally decided that funds appropriated to support children with disabilities would be better used on more iPads? There are many reasons why agency heads are prevented from doing what Johnson did: redirecting state funds meant for school districts and distributing state property to others based on nothing but personal whim.

It remains to be seen whether Johnson will be held accountable for breaking the law twice to purchase and distribute iPads that nobody asked for, or if he will continue to break multiple state laws without consequence.

Education

NC Public School Forum to tackle the challenges facing rural schools

In October, the Public School Forum of North Carolina announced the launch of Study Group XVII to examine the unique education challenges facing students across rural North Carolina. The effort will bring together subject matter experts from across the state to identify the unique barriers to success faced by rural students and to develop policy solutions to help rural schools overcome those barriers.

Addressing the unique needs of North Carolina’s rural schools is vital to ensuring that every child in North Carolina has access to the “sound basic education” promised by our state’s constitution. North Carolina has the second-largest rural student population in the country. Compared to their urban counterparts, North Carolina’s rural schools tend to serve more students from families with low incomes. Additionally, rural schools often find it more difficult to attract teachers and provide students with the academic and extracurricular options on offer in urban districts. Finally, many rural districts face declining enrollments, forcing many districts to consider school closures and consolidations that can rend communities.

North Carolina’s rural communities are hamstrung by an economic recovery that has been largely confined to urban areas. 42 of North Carolina’s 100 counties have lost jobs since December of 2007, many concentrated in rural, eastern North Carolina. An economic agenda focused on tax cuts for corporations and wealthy North Carolinians has exacerbated the opportunity gaps faced by rural children.

The Forum’s effort is also timely. A recent report from the Rural School and Community Trust measured the depth and breadth of each state’s rural education challenges and ranked North Carolina as the second-highest priority state behind only Mississippi. The report notes that North Carolina’s rural students are at or below the national median on college readiness indicators. Additionally, the report finds that one in five school-aged children in rural schools lives in poverty and per-pupil instructional spending is more than $1,000 below the national average. They ultimately conclude that North Carolina’s rural schools face “a dire situation that needs urgent attention at the state and community levels.”

The Study Group’s work continues on November 25th with two regional meetings at Edgecombe Community College and Isothermal Community College in Rutherford County from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm. Both meetings are open to the public. Those who wish to attend are encouraged to RSVP here.

Commentary, Education

Legislature’s budgets (mini or otherwise) fail to approach school needs

The General Assembly’s inability to craft a budget generating the requisite support of the Governor or three-fifths of legislators has spurred a new approach: the “mini-budget.” The General Assembly’s latest plan is to forego a comprehensive budget bill and instead pass a series of piecemeal bills to address some of the state’s most politically sensitive needs, such as pay increases and other technical adjustments.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but this strategy – while better than nothing – will once again fail to reverse a decade of neglect in providing our schools the resources necessary to succeed.

North Carolina has never done a good job of adequately funding our schools. In FY 08-09, North Carolina ranked just 43rd in per pupil spending and 43rd in terms of school funding effort (share of state and local school spending as a share of state GDP). That year, North Carolina spent less per student than our neighbors in Virginia and South Carolina, and only slightly outspent schools in Tennessee. It’s no surprise that Education Week gave North Carolina an “F” for our school funding level.

As things currently stand, real per-student state appropriations are 6.7 percent below pre-Recession levels.

This measure, however, underestimates the true resource crunch faced by our public schools. Actual cost increases for enrollment, salary schedule adjustments, and benefits have left resources at least 7.1 percent below pre-Recession levels.

Even this measure undersells district budget pressures, failing to take into account other types of inflation and the additional pressures created by unfettered school choice.

As things stand, 20 of the state’s 26 largest allotments remain below their pre-Recession levels once adjusted for enrollment and inflation, and North Carolina’s school funding effort has dropped to 48th worst in the country. North Carolina’s ranking on the NAEP has fallen relative to other states, with the state’s Black and Latinx students and those from families with low incomes increasingly being denied opportunities to succeed.

No mini budget can fix these maximalist holes. Yet mini budget proposals are all we’ve seen this session.

When it comes to the budget proposals put forward by the Governor and the General Assembly, the major differences are:

  • Teacher pay: The Governor proposed raising teacher salaries by an average of 9.1 percent over the biennium, compared to just 3.9 percent under the General Assembly plan
  • School construction: The Governor offered a $3.9 billion bond, $2 billion of which would go to public schools. The General Assembly’s pay-as-you-go plan would have provided select districts with $454 million in school construction funds over the biennium, along with a “promise” to provide more capital funds in subsequent years.

What the proposals have in common is that they do little to give schools the operating resources necessary to meet the needs of their students. The General Assembly’s budget would have increased funding by $271 million, but only $38 million of that amount would help restore school resources to pre-Recession levels. Out of the $568 million of new money proposed under the Governor’s budget, just $67 million goes towards restoring school resources. While the Governor’s proposal is clearly superior to the General Assembly’s effort, both fall well short of meeting schools’ needs. Restoring allotments to pre-Recession levels would cost $804 million.

In other words, even under the Governor’s plan – which is nearly twice as generous as the General Assembly’s – it would take 12 years to restore district resources close to pre-Recession levels.

Of course, under the General Assembly’s new mini budget plan, resources will never be restored to pre-Recession levels. North Carolina students would never benefit from the same number of teachers, instructional support personnel, assistant principals, teacher assistants, books, or supplies that they got before the Recession when our school funding ranked a lowly 43rd in the country.

All of these budgets – mini or not – reflect a failure to accept the scope to which legislators from both parties have neglected our public schools. In particular, these policymakers have been content with a system that – as the amazing CREED report E(race)ing Inequities documents – has consistently denied opportunity to Black and Latinx students. It’s why the Education & Law Project published the report Effective and Equitable, which provides policymakers with 28 community-informed recommendations that would transform education in North Carolina.

Enacting a transformation that provides opportunity for all students won’t come cheap, but it’s eminently affordable. The 28 recommendations put forth in Effective and Equitable would require about $3.8 billion of new investment. Coincidentally, increasing North Carolina’s school funding effort from 48th to 25th in FY 15-16 (the most recent year for which data is available) would have required additional investment of $3.6 billion. That’s $3.8 billion in today’s dollars. Similarly, returning to North Carolina’s pre-2013 tax code would restore approximately $3.6 billion to state coffers each year.

But to get where we need to go, policymakers need to abandon this pathetic mini-budget strategy and honestly ask themselves what it takes to provide every child with the opportunities they deserve. Then, get down to the hard work of crafting a comprehensive budget that actually addresses our children’s needs.

Commentary, Education

A modest proposal: Use the state surplus to help meet school construction needs

Image: Adobe Stock

In some ways, February seems like a lifetime ago. But in those early days of the 2019 legislative session, there was broad, bipartisan consensus that it was finally time for state leaders to do something about school districts’ $8 billion-plus of outstanding school capital needs. Senate leaders wanted to funnel more money into their pay-as-you-go plan known as the State Capital and Infrastructure Fund (SCIF) while House leaders coalesced around a $1.9 billion bond – $1.5 billion of which would support public schools.

A mere six months later, legislative leaders have failed in their attempts to provide any new support for school buildings. Both chambers have given up on trying to pass their standalone bills related to school construction, and are apparently unwilling to engage on a budget bill that could generate the necessary support from either the Governor or three-fifths of legislators.

However, fate has provided legislative leaders with a second bite at the apple in the form of nearly $900 million in one-time money from revenue coming in above projections. Currently, Speaker Moore and Senator Berger appear intent on sending $663 million of the surplus to North Carolinians in the form of $125 checks.

Berger and Moore should re-think that plan and consider using that money for a cause they both claim to care about: our state’s dilapidated public schools. After all, sending the $663 million to schools would actually go further for schools than either the Senate’s SCIF plan or the House’s bond proposal.

Both the SCIF and the bond would parse out school capital payments over about a ten-year  time horizon. Additionally, both plans would force future reductions in state expenditures that would partially off-set the benefits of the added school construction spending. Taking these factors into account, my colleague Patrick McHugh and I showed that the SCIF would provide schools with the equivalent of an immediate appropriation of $563 million while the bond would provide schools with the equivalent of $605 million.

Here’s an update to our analysis: $663 million is bigger than $563 million or $605 million. If legislative leaders still think school construction is a good use of state funds, they would be better off sending $663 million of the surplus to schools, helping them alleviate their massive capital needs. Sending these dollars to schools would help solve a real social problem, inject more money into our state’s economy, and the plan has a much better chance of becoming law than the Republicans’ rebate plan.

If legislative leaders reject this proposal, it’s important to find out what changed. Six months ago, both Senate and House leaders agreed that spending state revenue on school construction was more important than sending $125 checks to North Carolinians. Now they have an opportunity to show that their concern for the state of our schools was sincere and not simple pandering to make up for decades of neglect.