By Wendy Lecker
After years of stalled progress, a process is now underway in North Carolina aimed at moving the State to fulfill its constitutional duty to adequately fund public education. In response to a joint request by the parties in the landmark Leandro v. State litigation, Superior Court Judge David Lee has ordered WestEd, an independent consultant, to conduct an in-depth study and make recommendations to remedy the constitutional violations found in the Leandro case through the provision of constitutionally adequate resources for all North Carolina public schools.
In 1994, parents, students and school districts in low-wealth rural counties filed Leandro v. State, alleging students in these counties were being denied their right to an adequate education under the North Carolina constitution. In 1997, the North Carolina Supreme Court permitted the case to proceed to trial, declaring that all students in the state are entitled to “the opportunity to receive a sound basic education.” After trial, the lower court found in 2002 a violation of the students’ right to a sound basic education and ordered the State to remedy the violation by providing:
- A “competent, certified, well-trained teacher who is teaching the standard course of study” in every classroom;
A “well-trained competent principal with the leadership skills and ability to hire and retain competent, certified and well-trained teachers” in every school; and
- The “resources necessary to support the effective instructional program” in every school “so that the educational needs of all children, including at-risk children, to have an equal opportunity to obtain a sound basic education, can be met.”
In 2004, the Supreme Court upheld the trial court ruling and retained jurisdiction to ensure the State complied with the decision. Since 2004, some efforts have been made to comply with the Supreme Court ruling – notably, by expanding access to high quality preschool for at-risk four-year olds. Plaintiffs, however, continue to maintain that the State has not achieved full compliance with the specific requirements for a constitutional sound basic education established by the Leandro rulings.
After years of annual hearings to review student performance and other education data, in July 2017, the Plaintiff parties, including the Plaintiff-Intervenor, Charlotte-Mecklenberg Branch of the NAACP, and the State jointly asked Judge Lee – who had recently been assigned the Leandro case – for an order to appoint an independent expert consultant to develop recommendations for the State to comply with the three Leandro elements for a sound basic education. Judge Lee agreed and issued an order on February 1, 2018, appointing WestEd, an education research non-profit based in San Francisco, to undertake a study to recommend a plan to remedy the continuing constitutional violation in Leandro.
The Plaintiff-Intervenors are represented by attorneys Mark Dorosin and Elizabeth Haddix at the Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights.
Leandro Court’s Remedial Process
In several orders, Judge Lee not only appointed WestEd to conduct a remedial study but also established a process and timeline for conducting and completing the study. Specifically, WestEd must provide monthly progress reports to the parties and the Court, must meet with the parties to inform them of progress, and must provide opportunities for the parties to give input on the plan.
Judge Lee specifically directed WestEd to address each of the three elements of the Leandro ruling – qualified teachers, experienced leaders and adequate resources – and make recommendations for action by the State to remedy deficiencies in each area. The Judge ordered WestEd to complete its study and submit final recommendations to the parties and the Court within twelve months, or by March 31, 2019.
In its final recommendations, WestEd must provide all of the facts and opinions that form the basis for its recommendations. The parties also have the opportunity to respond to WestEd’s final recommendations. Finally, Judge Lee reserved the right to order further proceedings and/or discovery, including a hearing, regarding the final recommendations, should the Court deem these actions necessary.
The WestED Remedial Work Plan
WestEd has submitted a work plan to examine teaching, administration and the provision of resources necessary to support effective instruction. In particular, West Ed proposes to address the following issues:
- Teachers: focusing on attracting and preparing teachers; developing and supporting teachers; and retaining teachers and extending their reach to influence more students.
Principals: focusing on best practices for effective leadership, particularly those practices used in schools serving students living in poverty.
- Adequate Resources: reviewing and analyzing the current finance system to assess its adequacy and equity; convening “focus groups” drawn from education and other state leaders to understand needs, interests and options for improving the finance system; and developing a plan to address resource adequacy requirements. Of particular interest to WestEd is efficient resource allocation.
The Plaintiff parties are pressing to ensure WestEd analyzes the specific resources essential for an adequate education, particularly for students in high poverty schools and school districts. Specifically, Plaintiff-Intervenors have proposed WestED make findings regarding shortages of qualified teachers and principals and the connection between those shortages and inadequacies in North Carolina’s school finance system. They are also pressing WestEd to identify the essential staff, services and programs for low-income students, English language learners, and students with disabilities, and gaps in those essential resources – including preschool programs – in high poverty schools and school districts across the state.
Governor’s Leandro Commission
In a separate but related development, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper has established an Executive Commission on Access to Sound, Basic Education. The Commission will also assist WestEd in the development of the Leandro plan for the State to meet its constitutional education obligations. Importantly, the Commission will also be engaged in ensuring implementation of the remedial plan.
The Governor’s Commission includes prominent education experts in North Carolina, including Dr. Fouad Abd-El-Khalick, Dean of the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Mark Jewell, President of the NC Association of Educators; Dr. Helen F. Ladd, Professor Emerita of Public Policy and Economics at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy; Leslie Winner, former Executive Director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and former General Counsel to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education.
In recent years, North Carolina public schools have experienced reductions in education funding, which, in turn, have triggered cuts in essential resources, including teachers, support staff and programs, especially in schools serving high concentrations of low-income students and students at risk of academic failure. Progress in expanding access to high quality preschool has also stalled. For nearly a decade, the constitutional violations in the Leandro rulings have continued without an effective remedy.
The judicial proceedings in Leandro, now underway to develop specific remedial measures to ensure all North Carolina school children their constitutional right to an adequate education, hold the promise of alleviating the chronic resource deficits and severe underfunding of the state’s public schools. Judge Lee has established a clear process, with firm deadlines, for developing a concrete remedial plan for State action to guarantee that all schools have adequate resources to provide all children, no matter what their circumstances, the opportunity for a sound, basic education, as guaranteed by the North Carolina constitution.
Wendy Lecker is a Senior Attorney at Education Law Center
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