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Perspective | Seeing 2023 education legislation through a 1997 lens

The decades-long effort in North Carolina to strengthen public education through a legal route has come to a standstill, thwarted by the Republican legislative majority’s pursuit of an alternative agenda. That far-reaching agenda ranges from a huge increase in government subsidy for private school tuition, to restraints on teachers in discussing race and gender, to further reductions in income taxes.

To begin to assess the implications and consequences of the legislation of 2023, it is useful to return to what the state Supreme Court had to say in a landmark ruling on July 24, 1997. In an opinion written by Chief Justice Burley Mitchell, the court declared that two provisions of the North Carolina Constitution “combine to guarantee every child of this state an opportunity to receive a sound basic education in our public schools.”

In the iconic case, Leandro v. State, Justice Mitchell noted that through North Carolina history “control over education has often been fraught with political overtones of class, race, and gender.” He recognized that the General Assembly serves as an appropriate forum for decisions on educational programs and resources, while the courts have the constitutional duty to protect against a denial of fundamental rights.

After nearly a quarter of a century of further hearings, studies, rulings, and initiatives, the late Superior Court Judge W. David Lee sought to enforce the constitutional requirements for a sound basic education with an order for an eight-year “remedial” action plan. In the fall of 2022, the Supreme Court, with a Democratic majority, upheld Lee’s directive for two years of the plan. Four months later, the Supreme Court, with a Republican majority, blocked further spending of state funds to carry out that plan.

So, as the Republican House and Senate conclude their extended politics-and-policy wrangling over an omnibus General Fund budget, a basic question arises: How do major decisions of the 2023 legislative session appear through the lens of the 1997 court decision? 

Justice Mitchell’s ruling outlined standards for a sound basic education:  “sufficient ability” to read, write, and speak the English language;  “sufficient knowledge” of mathematics and physical science; “fundamental knowledge” of geography, history, and basic economic and political systems to enable students to make informed choices; “sufficient academic and vocational skills” to enable students to succeed in post-secondary education or vocational training, and “to compete on an equal basis with others in further formal education or gainful employment in contemporary society.”

Republicans made a key decision in what they agreed not to do. They continued to resist the two-year, pre-K-12 funding called for in the remedial plan. The budgeted pay raises, roughly averaging 7% over two years for teachers, fall short of putting the state on a trajectory to attract young people into teaching and to encourage veteran educators not to leave the classroom. 

Further, the budget offers no real expansion of professionally supervised child care that is vital to early learning and to enabling parents to work. While it appropriates funding for hiring bonuses to attract teachers to rural communities, the budget gives little additional propulsion to bolstering low-wealth districts and high-poverty schools at the heart of the Leandro case.

The Republican-fashioned budget makes tuition subsidies for students in private schools available to household as all income levels. It does so without imposing multiple requirements on private schools beyond administering national standardized tests once a year and reporting aggregated results to the State Education Assistance Authority, which then reports on learning gains and losses to lawmakers and the Department of Public Instruction.

Are North Carolina students in private schools receiving a sound basic education? Surely, they are in many well-run schools. But legislators leave parents and the public with rather minimal information upon which to assess educational quality across the whole array of private schools.

The budget bill projects tuition subsidies reaching $505 million by 2031-32. Meanwhile, bringing the individual income tax rate below 4% after 2026, as well as the lowering of corporate taxes, would constrain growth in state revenues in the near future with which to extend a sound basic education across the state’s community-based public schools.

In separate legislation, North Carolina legislators have joined with Republican peers in other states in engaging in “culture war” and “parents’ rights” lawmaking. The upshot is teachers and administrators walking on eggshells — making it less likely that schools provide the robust courses and readings that lead to fundamental knowledge of geography, history, economics, and democracy.

In democratic politics and government, each major turn — whether in an election, a budget, or a court ruling — shifts the context for decision-making. The state’s great education debate will continue in 2024 and beyond, as the Republican legislation plays out, and as Democrats rework and refresh their education agenda. 

Even in the new context of 2023, Justice Mitchell’s observation that education governance is “fraught with political overtones” remains valid. However unfulfilled in practice, the ruling he delivered in 1997 for the Supreme Court still stands — that in North Carolina there is a right to a sound basic education.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.