By Wendy Lecker

On January 21, Wake County Judge David Lee signed a consent order in North Carolina’s long-running Leandro v. State school funding case adopting the comprehensive findings and recommendations in a study ordered by the court to bring the state’s public school system into constitutional compliance. The study, conducted by the national research organization WestEd and filed with Judge Lee in late 2019, identifies in detail the State’s current failure to provide students with a constitutional sound basic education and recommends major reforms to ensure adequate funding and essential resources for all students.


WestEd was appointed by Judge Lee in early  2018 to study and propose recommendations to ensure compliance with the North Carolina Supreme Court ruling  in Leandro, the state’s landmark school funding litigation. In 1997, the Supreme Court held that North Carolina public school students have a right to a “sound basic education” under the State Constitution and remanded claims of inadequate funding for trial. In 2004, the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s decision that the State’s failure to provide adequate funding and resources violated the constitutional rights of North Carolina public school students. 

Following the landmark 2004 Leandro ruling, the court retained control over the case to oversee the State’s development and implementation of a comprehensive remedy for the  constitutional violation.

In its report, West Ed  notes that in the early 2000s, the State did make important investments in the public schools, particularly in preschool and other services for “at-risk” students. Student achievement also improved, and gaps between students of color and white students narrowed. However, beginning in 2008, the North Carolina Legislature dramatically reduced funding, resulting in deep cuts to teaching and support staff and other essential resources; stagnant student outcomes; and widening gaps in student achievement.  

After years waiting for the  State to restore the funding cuts and resume progress in meeting the Leandro court  mandates, the plaintiffs – parents, students, low-wealth school districts and the Charlotte-Mecklenberg Branch of the NAACP – and the State secured Judge Lee’s  approval to retain WestED to conduct the compliance study. 

A Thorough Study and Analysis

To ensure a thorough study, WestEd utilized expert researchers to analyze the four issues identified as deficient in the Leandro ruling:

  • access to effective teachers;
  • access to effective school leaders;
  • adequate and equitable school funding and other resources; and
  • adequate accountability and assessment systems.

Research teams conducted interviews, surveys and focus groups with parents, students, school personnel, community members and policymakers. Researchers also reviewed data and existing research, as well as studies and best practices from other states.

This extensive analysis led WestEd to conclude that, “the state is 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.”

State Funding Cuts, Greater Student Need

WestED  found a pattern of State disinvestment over the last decade in previously effective programs: support for teachers and school leaders, high quality preschool, and other services for at-risk, vulnerable student groups. Simultaneously, there was a dramatic increase in student need. The enrollment of economically disadvantaged (low-income) students increased by 88%, and the number of English language learners (ELL)  doubled in the last fifteen years. While the State has imposed new  curriculum, assessment and accountability standards on school districts, it has not increased funding to keep pace with significant changes in student and school need nor to meet  new  mandates.

Barriers for High Poverty Districts

WestED researchers identified State policies impeding the capacity of North Carolina’s high poverty districts to provide a sound basic education. Inadequate and inequitable funding was the most significant. But the State’s revised accountability system, based on standardized test scores, disproportionately penalizes high-poverty schools. In addition, the recent expansion of vouchers and charter schools has drained funding from already underfunded high poverty  districts as they struggle to serve higher cost, at-risk students, ELLs and students with disabilities

Recommendations for A Leandro Remedy

WestEd presents detailed recommendations for State compliance with the Leandro ruling and to meet the constitutional obligation to provide a sound basic education to all students. The key recommendations are:

  1. Adequate and equitable funding: The State should increase school funding by $7 billion over the next eight years: $3.2 billion in the short term focused on at-risk students, followed by an additional $3.7 billion. An additional $1.18 billion is recommended to expand high quality preschool. Beyond increased funding, the State should overhaul the school finance system to ensure stability, predictability and progressivity, and target funds to programs for at-risk students, including preschool; support services, such as counselors and social workers; teacher pipeline reforms; and principal preparation. The finance reforms should also require periodic review and adjustment of the funding formula and direct State funding of charter schools.
  1. Qualified, well-prepared and diverse teaching staff: The State should invest in improving the preparation of qualified teachers in high need schools by increasing support for North Carolina Teaching Fellows; State university teacher preparation programs, including at HBCUs; and district grow-your-own programs. Teacher compensation must be increased, especially for teachers in high-poverty districts, along with funding for ongoing professional development, teacher diversity and culturally responsive teaching.
  1. Qualified and well-prepared principals: The State should update licensure and preparation requirements, expand access to high-quality principal preparation programs, and improve principal compensation and supports.
  1. High Quality Preschool: In addition to a recommended $1.18 billion increase to expand high quality preschool, the State should prioritize access for at-risk children, improve the preschool teacher workforce, and work with high-poverty districts to ensure programs  serve community needs and use aligned instruction to transition children from preschool to the early grades.
  1. Initiatives for At-Risk Students: Reforms are needed to attract and retain highly qualified teachers in high poverty districts; revise the accountability system to be less punitive; provide whole child supports, such as counselors, nurses and social workers; and address out-of-school barriers, such as hunger and homelessness.
  1. Assessments and accountability: Assessment and accountability reforms are necessary to ensure coherence and alignment to curriculum and learning goals provide a broader picture of school/district performance and progress and use evidence-based support to improve performance.
  1. Low-performing and high-poverty schools: A critical (and often-overlooked) recommendation is to rebuild the State Department of Public Instruction’s capacity to support districts and school improvement and to work with high poverty districts  to address out-of-school barriers to academic achievement through a community schools approach.
  1. Continued Court Oversight: Judge Lee  should appoint a panel of experts to assist in monitoring State compliance in the implementation of the recommended remedies and  require  State submission of  reports and annual plans, with metrics to measure progress.

Court Confirms WestEd Findings and Orders State to Act Without Delay

In adopting WestEd’s findings and recommendations, Judge Lee noted that the report  “confirms what this Court has previously made clear: that the State Defendants have not yet ensured the provision of education that meets the required constitutional standard to all school children in North Carolina.”

Judge Lee also ordered the State defendants to work expeditiously to fully implement all of WestEd’s recommendations and ordered the State and the plaintiffs to submit within 60 days a status report detailing:

  1. The specific actions the State will implement in 2020;
  2. A date for submission of additional, mid-range actions to be implemented, a timeframe for implementation, and an estimate of resources in addition to current funding, if any, necessary to complete those actions; and
  3. A date for submission of a comprehensive remedial plan to provide all public school children the opportunity for a sound basic education, including a time frame, a funding estimate, and a plan for monitoring and assessing the outcomes for the remedial plan.

The WestEd report and Judge Lee’s consent order represent a milestone in the long road to ensure the State effectuates the fundamental right of every child in North Carolina to have the opportunity to receive a sound basic education in a public school. The study and the order also provide a solid roadmap to guide advocates and lawyers working to achieve comprehensive school finance reforms in other states across the nation.  

Education Law Center provides ongoing assistance to Mark Dorosin and Elizabeth Haddix of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in their representation of the NC NAACP in the Leandro case. In addition, ELC is working with the NC Justice Center through the Partnership for Equity & Education Rights (PEER).


Wendy Lecker is a Senior Attorney at Education Law Center


Press Contact:

Sharon Krengel
Policy and Outreach Director
973-624-1815, x 24






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Press Contact:
Sharon Krengel
Director of Policy, Strategic Partnerships and Communications
973-624-1815, x240