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A tragically missed opportunity

The attorneys representing the school districts that originally filed the suit leading to the Leandro decision recently asked me to review the plan for guaranteeing that all young people have the opportunity for a sound, basic education that the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) was ordered to present to Judge Manning, the judge presiding over the Leandro case. 

My first reaction after reading the DPI’s “plan” was anger. 

It was not a plan. 

There were no goals. 

There were no action steps leading to reaching the goals. 

There were no benchmarks that would measure the success of the plan. 

Instead it was a recitation of steps DPI has taken in recent years that, in their words, guarantee that all children have the opportunity to receive a sound, basic education.

On second reading, however, my anger changed to sadness. Sadness in that the Judge’s order offered DPI  the opportunity to make an honest accounting of how recent Draconian cuts in education, years of no or low salary increases, the end of the Teaching Fellows Program, the elimination of pay for Master’s Degrees and much more have worsened the State’s ability to guarantee a sound, basic education to all children.

Further, DPI could have shown how much of what has been positive in recent years resulted from the State receiving a $400 million Race to the Top grant from the federal government, a grant that will end in only a few months. 

Last, the Department, without being self-serving, could have documented how cuts over time have decimated the Department’s ability to lead a meaningful effort to guarantee the constitutionally promised sound and basic education to all children.

The Department did none of that. Instead, the Judge was given a dishonest, self-congratulatory document that, if believed, would lead one to the conclusion that all is well in the schools of North Carolina.

During the just-concluded two day continuation of the Leandro trial, the State compounded its dishonesty when testifying to the Judge that “. . .  we have enough resources within the state for a student to be able to access a sound, basic education . . . it’s hard for me to say it takes more resources when I’m not sure that all the resources that are there are being used as effectively as they could be used.”

That testimony in front of Judge Manning comes at a time when, by the Department’s admission, the federal grant ends there will be no money for training either teachers or administrators. It comes at a time when enrollments in Schools of Education across the State are dropping precipitously at the same time that all of the State’s private and public colleges are producing barely 50 percent of the teachers needed to staff the State’s schools. It comes at the time when the bulk of the State’s assistance to low-performing schools will end when Race to the Top funds stop flowing into North Carolina.

All of which takes me back to the word “sadness.” 

Had the State made an honest accounting of where school improvement efforts stand today it would have been an unprecedented opportunity to arm the Judge presiding over the case with facts – facts that could have spurred the Judge to issue a decision that could reinject urgency into the State’s need to redouble its efforts to meet its constitutional obligation to young people. 

As it is, by essentially saying to the court that “all is well” in the schools in North Carolina, the State has done a grave disservice not only to the 1.4 million young people attending North Carolina’s public schools but to all of  the citizens of North Carolina.

 

John Dornan

Education advocate. International traveler. Photographer. Reader.

John Dornan was the founding executive director of the North Carolina Public School Forum, serving from 1986 to 2011. A native of Pennsylvania, Dornan’s career spanned a variety of positions related to education over 46 years.