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Perspective | Leandro decision a hopeful step forward

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On Saturday morning, my 17-year-old son asked me how it felt to wake up knowing the Leandro decision that was made the day before. I paused as I recognized that this high school junior understood how important the state Supreme Court’s ruling in this nearly 30-year-old school funding case was for children across our state.

As I reflected, I realized that the feeling I was experiencing was actually hope. I felt hope because the court’s decision put students at the center. The need, the rationale, and our Constitution all focus on ensuring that every child in North Carolina has access to a sound basic education. We understand that this is a responsibility and an opportunity for our state, and we will have stronger outcomes for our students when we focus on what they need.

Over the past decades, we have seen the incredible efforts of teachers, principals, and all of the others in the school system to provide high-quality educational opportunities for our students. In so many cases, as indicated by the Leandro decision, these efforts and successes of our public schools were made despite the lack of human and fiscal resources. Yet we must recognize and address the significant and persistent gaps in teacher compensation, billions of dollars in school infrastructure needs, the struggle to recruit and retain all staff for school districts, and inequitable access to resources for historically marginalized students. Calls for additional funding for schools are by no means excessive, but would help our state address, for example, the $3,000 gap in per-pupil spending or the $12,000 gap in average teacher pay that North Carolina teachers and school districts experience.

The state Supreme Court’s Leandro decision confirms to all North Carolinians that we, as a state, will do more — we will do better — and sets forth an evidence-based plan for how and how much North Carolina must invest in our kids, families, and communities today and in the years to come.

For the initial years of the Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan, that amount is close to an additional $800 million. That is significant for our students. It is also important to note that North Carolina has an over $6 billion surplus this past year, so this is both a worthy and attainable investment.

As we look at the key components of the Comprehensive Remedial Plan, they are clearly research-based and common sense investments. There is broad agreement from educators, families, and researchers that every child needs:

  • A well-prepared, high-quality, diverse teacher workforce;
  • A well-prepared, high-quality principal workforce;
  • Adequate, equitable, and predictable school funding;
  • A reliable assessment and accountability system;
  • Support for low-performing schools;
  • High-quality, affordable, and accessible early childhood opportunities; and
  • Opportunity to engage in high-quality postsecondary and career pathways.

As we think about the days to come, this investment must also be accompanied by plans to rebuild the teacher, principal, and other student support personnel workforce. We must consider how our finance and accountability systems support student outcomes. We must practice what we know to be necessary for early childhood and postsecondary opportunities.

Once implemented, the Leandro plan will allow our school leaders to focus more on what kids need and less on how to make do despite a lack of resources. Our kids and families see this and understand how much this is needed. We are not there yet, but this is a very important step in ensuring that every child in North Carolina has access to a sound basic education.

Mary Ann Wolf

Mary Ann Wolf, Ph.D. has served as President and Executive Director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina since June 2020, bringing with her more than 20 years of educational policy and leadership working directly with schools and districts across North Carolina to improve equity and build capacity for innovation.