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Leandro with a twist

The courts have found the State to be in violation of its constitutional obligations to provide an equal opportunity to a sound basic education. Now the State – or at least the General Assembly – finds the local boards to be in violation. That’s a twist. The trial court has required the State to provide a plan for carrying out its constitutional duties. In the budget, the General Assembly sets out a corrective path for local boards that includes limiting their flexibility and increasing reporting requirements. Another twist. 

As EdNC covers the 2015 budget, this juxtaposition is one of the issues worth exploring. To set this out more fully, this spring, the trial court in the ongoing Leandro v. State case required a “definite plan of action from the State of North Carolina as to how the State of North Carolina intends to correct the educational deficiencies in the student population…Such plan shall identify the actions necessary to address the State’s fundamental constitutional obligations as established by this Court and affirmed by the Supreme Court to provide (i) competent, certified teachers in every classroom, (ii) well-trained, competent principals in every school, and (iii) the resources necessary so that all children, including those at-risk, have an equal opportunity to obtain a sound basic education.”

This is not the approach taken by the General Assembly. Instead, the Appropriations Act proclaims: “The General Assembly finds that some local boards of education have failed to comply with the requirements of the judiciary’s decisions in Leandro to provide all public school students the opportunity to receive a sound basic education. Notwithstanding a history of adequate State and local funding and legislatively‑granted flexibility in administration, management, and employment at the local level to provide tools to facilitate compliance with Leandro, some local boards of education have failed to take actions sufficient to:

  1. Prevent education bureaucracies from interfering with and overriding accountability measures and education reforms required by State law.
  2. Properly administer the public schools.
  3. Provide high‑quality principals in every school and high‑quality teachers in every classroom.”1

To correct the deficiencies found by the General Assembly, the Appropriations Act outlines specific strategies including to “[d]irect the State Board of Education not to allow waivers of State laws and rules that permit local boards to avoid accountability measures and education reforms required by the State.”2 The revisions to state law actually are even broader than this. The Appropriations Act eliminates the option for local boards of education to seek any waiver of State laws and rules from the State Board other than in limited circumstances for class size and for school calendar requirements to accommodate anticipated makeup days. Before, local boards could seek waivers except in specified categories.3

There are other restrictions. While the funding for teacher assistants was preserved, local boards lost the flexibility they previously had to convert funds to dollar equivalents for any purpose allowed by the State Board.4 And local boards must report to the State Board an explanation of any transfer of funds from the textbooks and digital resources allotment.5

Another part of the General Assembly’s plan to correct these asserted failures is to change the identification of low-performing schools.  Now, “[l]ow‑performing schools are those that receive a school performance grade of D or F and a school growth score of ‘met expected growth’or ‘not met expected growth’ as defined by G.S. 115C‑83.15.”6 

According to the Insider, this change in definition will increase the number of “low-performing schools from 379 to 581 or nearly a quarter of the state’s schools.” The Insider further notes that in this new designation, about “80 percent receive federal funding for having large populations of low-income students.”7 For schools identified as low-performing under the new definition, the budget bill requires a more detailed plan as well as more notice requirements.8

If the General Assembly is going to hold local boards responsible, it should have some remedies for addressing boards that do not act in the best interest of students. The Appropriations Act does provide for the State Board to consolidate county districts, but this does not address the issue of obstreperous local boards or board members.9 The only action directly related to the qualifications of local board members is to cut in half the amount of training required for local board members, from 12 hours each year to 12 hours in two years.10  Granted, this is better than the Senate version of the budget that eliminated board training altogether. But surely, as a part of addressing constitutional deficiencies, the State could come up with a better plan than this.

And the State gets that chance. The trial court resumes hearings on the State’s plan on November 17. There is very little explanation of the provisions in the budget as a part of the public record of the legislative process. Let’s see what the State has to say in November.

Show 10 footnotes

  1. House Bill 97, section 8A.1.(a).
  2. House Bill 97, section 8A.1.(b)(2).
  3. House Bill 97, section 8A.6(a) rewriting G.S. 115C-105.26  (g), 8A.3(a) rewriting N.C.G.S. 115C-301:Waivers and Allotment Adjustments. – Local boards of education shall report exceptions to the class size requirements set out for kindergarten through third grade and significant increases in class size at other grade levels to the State Board and shall request allotment adjustments at any grade level, waivers from the requirements for kindergarten through third grade, or both. Within 45 days of receipt of reports, the State Board of Education, within funds available, may allot additional positions at any grade level. The State Board shall not grant waivers for the excess class size in kindergarten through third grade.grade, except under the following circumstances: (i) emergencies or acts of God that impact the availability of classroom space or facilities; (ii) an unanticipated increase in student population of an individual school in excess of two percent (2%) of the average daily membership of that school; (iii) organizational problems in geographically isolated local school administrative units in which the average daily membership is less than one and one‑half per square mile; (iv) classes organized for a solitary curricular area; or (v) a charter school closure.
  4. House Bill 97, section 8.47(b) amending N.C.G.S. 115C-105.25(b) by adding a new subsection (3a). Previously teacher assistant allotments could have been converted to dollar equivalents for any purpose authorized by the State Board of Education under G.S. 115C-105.25(5b).
  5. House Bill 97, section  8.33; N.C. G.S. 115C-105.25(c)(4).
  6. House Bill 97, section 8A.4.(b), rewriting N.C.G.S. 115C-105.37.
  7.  Insider, September 21, 2015.
  8. House Bill 97, section 8A.4.(c), adding new section, N.C.G.S. 115C-l05.39A.
  9. House Bill 97, section 8A.5. adding a new section, N.C.G.S. 115C-66.5.
  10. House Bill 97, section 8.44. N.C.G.S. 115C‑50(a).
Ann McColl

Ann McColl is an attorney and state constitutional scholar.