North Carolina legislators may think they have their hands full trying to defuse the hot political issue of the moment – the state’s woeful pay levels for its public school teachers, now averaging 46th in the nation – while also closing budget shortfalls aggravated by unwise tax cuts. Gov. Pat McCrory wants his Republican allies who control the General Assembly to raise teachers’ salaries, but finding the money while keeping budgets in balance won’t be easy without admitting that the tax cuts went too far.
That’s the immediate dilemma facing legislators who on May 14 convened for their every-other-year “short” session. The session is supposed to be devoted to straightening out kinks in the state budget that’s set to take effect July 1. When the governor decides teachers and their advocates are wearing him out with their protests over low pay, and when he calls for spending an extra $265 million next year even while tax revenues lag behind forecasts, that qualifies as a sure-enough kink.
Considering the damage inflicted by legislators and a compliant governor on the state’s public schools via a range of bad budget and policy decisions, giving teachers a little relief in their paychecks seems like it shouldn’t be too much to ask.
But there’s a larger problem sending rumbles through the capital like thunder from an approaching storm: The courts could well end up concluding that North Carolina must renew its commitment to a whole range of school improvements, higher teacher pay included. That’s what school systems that are plaintiffs in the long-running Leandro lawsuit now seek.
Meanwhile, the judge who oversees the lawsuit is signaling his frustration with the state’s failure to teach many students to read competently by the third grade – a skill seen as essential for kids to have a fair chance to succeed as their schooling unfolds.
Education for everybody
The Leandro case has towered over state government ever since it yielded the NC Supreme Court’s famous 1997 ruling that the state constitution entitles every student to an equal opportunity to obtain a “sound basic education.” By every student, the court meant even residents of counties where poverty limits the resources available to support the schools while it heightens the challenges in teaching students what they need to know.
The high court tapped Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr. of Wake County to get to the bottom of whether the state was meeting its obligation. After exhaustive fact-finding, Manning decided in the negative. More would have to be done to overcome the disadvantages facing children in poverty-strapped school districts. In 2004, over state officials’ objections, the Supreme Court agreed. Its opinion became known as Leandro II.
How to tell whether students are being properly served? A key indicator, the courts agreed, would be test scores measuring necessary skills in reading and math. If kids couldn’t read and compute at levels deemed proficient for their grades, then the state wasn’t doing its job.
Manning has continued in the decade since Leandro II to track student performance and thus the state’s compliance with Supreme Court orders. Now he has issued a report citing widespread reading deficiencies among third-graders – along with a recent bureaucratic maneuver he suggests could be used to sweep some of those deficiencies under the rug.
Looking at test results across the curriculum and across grade levels, the judge charged that “way too many thousands” of students are not gaining a sound basic education.
Failure to master suitable reading skills by the third grade is a clear sign that a student is headed down the wrong path, Manning contended – and by his analysis, the share of students who aren’t adequately prepared to read as they enter third grade is appalling. He reported that in tests given to all third-graders at the start of the current school year, 68 percent “failed to score well enough to be on track.” That amounts to 77,783 kids.
Can’t cut and run
Manning noted that scoring on the state’s tests was changed this spring in a way that could mask who’s proficient and who isn’t. Also, some assessments have been dropped.
The state cannot “cut and run” from test results “by reducing standards and deleting the assessments because they do not bring good news,” he wrote. “The children of North Carolina have a constitutional right to a sound basic education and the adults who are paid and charged with the responsibility of providing that education in every school and classroom have no right to cover up the results of their failure to provide that opportunity. … ”
The Supreme Court has said the state’s public schools must meet three core requirements: 1) have a “competent, certified, well-trained” teacher in each classroom who can tailor instruction to meet students’ individual needs, 2) have a principal who can hire and lead teachers capable of giving students a fair chance to achieve at or above grade level, and 3) have sufficient resources to support an “effective instructional program,” meaning one that produces satisfactory results.
The school systems that remain plaintiffs in the Leandro case now charge that because of budget cuts, policy changes and broken promises over the past several years, the state’s obligations as set forth by the Supreme Court have become impossible to meet.
In a recent filing aimed in Manning’s direction, attorneys for those school systems cite a litany of actions the state said it would take to meet the standards set by the high court. For example, according to the filing, in 2005 the state “committed to enact a plan to bring teachers’ salaries above the national average in order to improve [its] ability to recruit and retain quality teachers.” There were parallel pledges regarding teachers’ enhanced training and professional development.
Those commitments went up in smoke, amid years of budget belt-tightening in response to the Great Recession and a takeover in Raleigh by conservatives who seemed bent on undercutting teachers’ professional status.
Republican-backed budgets also curtailed access to pre-kindergarten programs – programs that are crucial to disadvantaged children at risk of academic failure – increased class sizes and whacked the ranks of teacher assistants. It’s hard to disagree with the Leandro plaintiffs’ accusation that the state has been “moving backwards, not forwards” in terms of complying with court mandates.
One Republican initiative does seem to track with Manning’s priorities – the push led by Republican Senate leader Phil Berger to require reading competence in order for a child to be promoted from third grade. But the legislature’s approval last year of “Read to Achieve” shapes up as a hollow gesture unless teachers and schools are given what they need to teach reading effectively. That includes making sure kids from poor backgrounds have the pre-K experience that helps them start school ready to learn.
Tell it to the judge
The Leandro plaintiffs, led by school boards in Hoke County and Asheville, want a hearing in August at which the state would have to show why it should not be found in violation of prior court orders. They want an updated compliance plan and evidence that the state is prepared to carry out the plan. In light of Judge Manning’s scathing report on reading deficiencies, a likely response from him would seem to be, “Let’s go!”
The fate of public education in North Carolina is of special concern to the Council of Churches, which sees strong schools, colleges and universities as essential if all the state’s residents are to have a fair chance to develop their talents and pursue their dreams.
The Council’s principal annual event for 2014, its Critical Issues Seminar, has public education as its theme. The Seminar, to be held in Chapel Hill on Monday, June 16, will include among more than a dozen workshops one that focuses on the issues raised by the Leandro case. The workshop, “School Systems Rich and Poor,” will be led by Raleigh attorney Gerry Hancock, counsel for Asheville and the other urban school districts that are parties to the case. Registration is open, and all are welcome.
By mid-June, the legislative session now getting under way will be going full steam, with Gov. McCrory’s teacher pay raise proposals on the agenda. Legislative leaders aim to keep a tight rein on the proceedings, hoping to wrap things up in early July. Of course, the sooner lawmakers get out of town, the fewer times they’ll have to endure hundreds if not thousands of protesters convening for weekly Moral Monday events led by the state NAACP. Public school advocates are sure to be well-represented, as they were last year.
If the Leandro plaintiffs manage to secure their hearing later in the summer – and if the courts eventually rule, once again, that the state is shirking its constitutional duty by starving schools and students of the resources they need — our elected leaders then could be faced with court orders telling them what they must do in the way of remedies.
That would set the stage for future policy and budget battles with huge implications for the state’s well-being. The debate over teacher pay expected to play out during the next few weeks could serve as a preview – and advocates for strong public schools will be sure to have their say.