New 6th-graders in Nicole Parris' class sit in spaced seating during 6th grade orientation in August 2020 at Hendersonville Middle. Photo courtesy of Henderson County Schools.

In 1994, five North Carolina school districts joined forces with parents to file a lawsuit against the state, arguing that their schools — located in Hoke, Halifax, Robeson, Vance and Cumberland counties — did not have enough funding to provide an equal education to their children.

The N.C. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in 1997, saying the state has a constitutional obligation to ensure all children receive access to a sound, basic education.

That suit, Leandro v. State of North Carolina, was revived again last week when Superior Court Judge David Lee signed an order to implement a comprehensive eight-year plan to meet that obligation.

“If the State fails to implement actions described in the Comprehensive Remedial Plan — actions which it admits are necessary and which, over the next biennium, the Governor’s proposed budget and Senate Bill 622 confirm are attainable — ‘it will then be the duty of this Court to enter a judgment granting declaratory relief and such other relief as needed to correct the wrong,’” the order stated.

In the nearly 25 years since that initial ruling, a lower court found the state violated students’ right to a sound, basic education, a ruling upheld by the N.C. Supreme Court in 2004. In 2017, the plaintiffs asked that Judge Lee appoint an independent consultant to advise the state on compliance with the Leandro ruling, which he did in 2018. The report — derived from studies conducted by nonprofit educational consultants WestEd — was released in 2019, outlining eight critical needs to achieve compliance.

The comprehensive eight-year plan based on the findings of that report was submitted to the Superior Court on March 15. Proponents of the plan say its components — which include provisions to recruit and train educators, provide support for early learning programs and provide adequate funding to underserved districts — offer a practical, viable approach for improving the state’s educational system.

And they’d like to see it implemented sooner rather than later.

Legislative outlook

“We could implement the long-term plan today if lawmakers prioritized education,” said Sarah Montgomery, policy advocate at the nonprofit N.C. Justice Center and member of the Every Child NC coalition, which advocates for children’s right to a sound, basic education.

“We have an unprecedented amount of revenue currently in our reserves; we’re actually in a good financial position considering we’re coming out of a pandemic.”

Gov. Roy Cooper’s office released a statement June 15 outlining an updated consensus revenue forecast from economists in the Office of State Budget and Management and the General Assembly’s Fiscal Research Division. That forecast anticipated an additional $6.5 billion in state revenues through the next biennium. The forecast doesn’t include funds received from the American Rescue Plan.

Several legislators in the General Assembly offered a plan for using some of those funds to initiate the Comprehensive Remedial Plan. House Bill 946 includes an educator licensure and compensation reform plan, funding for children with disabilities and supplemental funding for low-wealth counties, among other provisions. The bill calls for a two-year implementation plan to be funded by the state’s budget surplus.

“Just to fund this bill as it is, it would only cost the state $1.5 billion for the first two years,” said co-sponsor Rep. Julie von Haefen, D-Wake. “And as we know, we have almost $7 billion sitting in our bank account right now — we have the money to fully fund this bill in the first two years.”

Just a day after being introduced, HB 946 was referred to the Committee on Rules, Calendar and Operations of the House, a disappointing action for those hoping to see it advance to a vote.

“The bill was referred immediately to the Rules Committee, which means it’s not going to move or go anywhere,” von Haefen said. “This was something we felt should’ve gotten consideration by the K-12 Committee — at least discuss and not send it away.”

Educator perspective

For educators in the state, the Leandro comprehensive plan would provide an overhaul of teacher compensation and a system of teacher development and recruitment to ensure high-quality teachers are paid fairly and given opportunities for advancement and professional development.

“The plan calls for support to recruit and retain highly qualified educators,” said Tameka Walker Kelly, president of the N.C. Association of Educators. “It talks about looking at the state’s compensation plan, paying educators a competitive salary, implementing training programs so we have a strong pipeline and increasing educator diversity as well.”

The comprehensive plan also allocated funds to address poor-performing schools and schools in low-wealth counties, such as those named in the Leandro case, several of which remain among the lowest funded in the state according to per-pupil funding rankings by Public School Forum of North Carolina.

“We have pockets in North Carolina where kids are struggling in schools,” said Rep. Cynthia Ball D-Wake, who also sponsored House Bill 946. “The schools that are considered low-performing, it’s because they’re not being supported.”

Assistance for these schools would come in the form of funding for not only academic resources but also the addition of school health staff and on-site mental health professionals.

“We have way below the national recommended ratios of the mental health and physical health professionals in our schools,” Ball said. “I was shocked to find out the receptionists in the principal’s office are dispensing medications. And our teachers are doing the things nurses or therapists should be doing.”

The plan also addresses early education, including expanding the North Carolina Pre-K program to make full-year services available to eligible 4-year-olds and increase opportunities for high-quality early learning opportunities for children from birth.

“From the time they are 2 or 3 years old, we want to ensure that they are supported in ways that will make them successful in the future,” Ball said.

Proponents say the pandemic has further revealed the cracks in the state’s education system and the need for immediate action to support public schools. And with federal funding allocated to North Carolina as part of the government’s pandemic relief plan, more funds are available to address some of those issues.

“We’ve got enough money with our rainy-day fund and with the American Rescue Plan dollars, which can handle some of the nonrecurring things in this legislation,” Ball said. “Some of the things we do in the first two years set the stage for things in the future and also address those problems that were exacerbated in the pandemic.”

At this point, Republicans in the General Assembly have proved hesitant to act on the comprehensive plan, particularly with the move to sideline HB 946. But proponents in the legislature said they will continue to push and look to Gov. Cooper to support allocating funds to support the initial phases of the plan.

“We need to give the legislature a road map,” von Haefen said.

“This is the way we’re going to fulfill that obligation, and in my eyes this is an easy way to go ahead and address those responsibilities. I would hope that if they’re not going to hear the bill and pass it, I hope we’d hear at least parts of it in the budgets and start addressing the needs outlined.”

And parents and educators supporting the plan hope the members of the General Assembly understand what’s at stake.

“It’s critically important for our legislature to know the families who brought this suit to our courts are representing counties that have significant challenges in population and wealth,” said Walker Kelly.

“And our lawmakers need to be on the side of parents and communities who want at the bare minimum a sound education for their children.”

Editor’s note: Carolina Public Press News Editor Laura Lee, who is the daughter of Judge David Lee, was not involved with the production of this article.

Jennifer Bringle

Jennifer Bringle is a Carolina Public Press contributing writer. Based in Greensboro, her articles have appeared in many news publications across the state and nationally. Send an email to info@carolinapublicpress.org to contact her or other CPP news team members.