On Jan. 21, Superior Court Judge David Lee, who oversees compliance in the Leandro school-quality case, issued an order endorsing the WestEd report’s findings and setting forth steps to address its recommendations for improvements in North Carolina’s public education system. The 34-page consent order obligates the state to do more to ensure that public school students receive an education meeting state constitutional standards.
“In short, North Carolina’s PreK-12 public education system leaves too many students behind — especially students of color and economically disadvantaged students,” Lee wrote.
“As a result, thousands of students are not being prepared for full participation in the global, interconnected economy and the society in which they will live, work and engage as citizens.” The judge set a 60-day deadline for the Leandro case parties to come up with a plan including a better system for recruiting and training teachers, for developing capable school principals and for financing schools more adequately and equitably.
When it comes to the challenge of boosting North Carolina’s investment in its public schools so that each and every student can thrive, some failures are acute and others are chronic.
Acute: After a one-day legislative session on Jan. 15 collapsed amid a standoff over proposed pay raises, the state’s public school teachers must soldier on with no raises in sight.
Chronic: Despite outlays that by some measures have increased – but not enough to keep pace with inflation and enrollment growth – North Carolina still isn’t providing enough resources to its schools to fulfill its duty under the state constitution. That’s according to a recently released report gauging compliance with court rulings in the long- running Leandro case, which established the state’s responsibility to give every student the chance to acquire a “sound basic education.”
Last summer, in negotiations over a budget for the fiscal year that began July 1, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper proposed increases averaging 8.5 percent to make teacher salaries more competitive. That was too rich for the Republican-controlled General Assembly, which settled on a 3.9 percent raise over two years.
After Cooper vetoed an overall budget bill, Republicans overrode the veto in the state House but finally gave up on mustering enough override votes in the Senate. Meanwhile they had passed a separate teacher pay bill with the 3.9 percent pay hike.
Cooper vetoed that bill as well, saying it didn’t go far enough – and on Jan. 15 an override attempt in the Senate came up short. So with legislators now not expected to reconvene until late April, the stalemate could just drag on, with teachers taking the hit.
The governor no doubt believes that standing up for higher teacher pay will help him in his drive to win a second term in the elections this fall. Teachers and their public education allies are a large and politically active voting bloc. Yet his goal of continuing to move teachers’ salaries toward a more nationally respectable level – and thereby helping the state recruit and retain personnel who can succeed in a demanding and critically important profession, with children’s futures at stake – makes perfect sense.
And Cooper hammers the further point that if legislative Republicans weren’t so fixated on cutting taxes, having chopped state revenues by billions of dollars in the past several years via cuts mainly benefitting the well-off, then money to invest in schools wouldn’t be so tight. Hard to argue with that!
A key recommendation in the recent Leandro report, compiled under court auspices by the San Francisco-based firm WestEd, implicitly casts those tax cuts in a harsh light. The report projects the need for an additional $8 billion in spending over the next eight years.
With public education expenditures now running in the range of $10 billion annually, such an increase would amount to 10 percent or so — not unreasonable. Still, that kind of money can be hard to come by – even more so when revenue sources have been slashed. Absent that further investment, WestEd’s researchers concluded, North Carolina will continue struggling to meet the standard set forth in 1997 by the state Supreme Court in its milestone Leandro ruling.
The justices declared that the state constitution guarantees to all students the right to obtain a sound basic education, and that means even if a student lives in a community wracked by poverty. When in 2004 the other legal shoe dropped, the state was found to be consistently depriving children in low-wealth counties of the educational opportunity they deserved.
In following years came many attempts to climb out of that self-defeating hole. School districts in areas where the tax base can’t support additional local spending were given more state money. Allowances were made for the needs of urban schools serving many students from lower-income families. Class sizes were reduced and pre-K programs were strengthened. Better pay for teachers became a priority.
Yet with recession-linked economic setbacks, combined with conservative pressure to avoid “throwing money” at the schools and instead to focus on strategies such as giving students more choice of which school to attend, education improvements have continued to lag the need.
In its comprehensive report channeled through Superior Court Judge David Lee, who now oversees the Leandro case, WestEd supplied details of that shortfall, which essentially has left the state running in place or even backsliding. For example:
“After climbing for many years as part of a campaign by the state to reach the national average, teacher compensation began falling in North Carolina after 2008, losing ground against both national benchmarks and the salaries in other southeastern states,” the report states.
“In the 2017–18 school year, beginning teachers’ average starting salaries in North Carolina were 29th in the nation, at $37,631. Overall, the average salary for teachers in North Carolina ranks 37th in the nation. … Although North Carolina once led the southeastern states in teacher pay, it now lags most of its neighbors in average pay.” [Citations omitted.]
In short supply
WestEd paints a picture of conspicuous damage inflicted on the state’s ability to hire and retain teachers who have the skills needed for classroom success. Counties that can’t afford local salary supplements – and there are many such counties – are especially in a bind when it comes to putting competent teachers in every classroom. And that’s despite the state’s efforts to distribute school funds more equitably in general.
Consider this warning: “North Carolina can never succeed in providing a sound basic education for its children without vastly improved systems and approaches for recruiting, preparing, supporting, developing, and retaining teachers and for placing highly effective teachers where they are most needed to foster the academic growth of at-risk students. The current teacher shortages and high turnover – particularly in high-poverty schools – are a function of uneven preparation and mentoring, inadequate compensation, and poor working conditions.”
While Republican legislators point to annual increases in education spending, WestEd notes a 6 percent decline since 2009-10 when adjusted for inflation. And it says that according to 2017-18 figures, the most recent available, the state ranked sixth from the bottom nationally in total per-pupil spending.
North Carolina may not be the most affluent among the 50 states, but surely it has the financial wherewithal to do better than that – and thus to help thousands more young people get off on the right foot in achieving self-fulfillment and becoming assets to their communities.
From the N.C. Council of Churches’ perspective, giving people that kind of chance to take advantage of their innate potential not only is crucial in achieving a just and prosperous society, but it also reflects an imperative to value the worth of each of us as human beings or, it could be said, as children of God.
Disputes over education spending are bound to continue, fanned by politics and ideology. But those who play a role in these decisions would be wise to absorb the WestEd findings and reflect on what North Carolina still must do to ensure decent educational opportunity for all.
More money of course won’t solve every problem, and WestEd offers a slew of recommendations for ironing out kinks in a public education system that in some respects veers toward the dysfunctional. But when determining what we pay the teachers to whom we entrust so much, as well as their supporting cast of school personnel, getting by on the cheap should no longer be an option.