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State Superintendent candidates sound off on Leandro

In a recent survey, EducationNC asked teachers what questions they had for the two candidates for state superintendent of public instruction. We winnowed the responses down to the best five and added three of our own. We are going to ask the two candidates for state superintendent one question a week and publish their responses.

This week, we asked the candidates for State Superintendent of Public Instruction about the long-standing Leandro case. Specifically, we asked about the findings of the WestEd Leandro report.

By way of background, the eight critical recommendations of the report are:

1. Revise the state funding model to provide adequate, efficient, and equitable resources

2. Provide a qualified, well-prepared, and diverse teaching staff in every school

3. Provide a qualified and well-prepared principal in every school

4. Provide all at-risk students with the opportunity to attend high-quality early childhood programs

5. Direct resources, opportunities, and initiatives to economically disadvantaged students

6. Revise the student assessment system and school accountability system

7. Build an effective regional and statewide system of support for the improvement of low-performing and high-poverty schools

8. Convene an expert panel to assist the Court in monitoring state policies, plans, programs, and progress

For more on Leandro, see the background section at the end of the article.

Q: What of the Leandro report’s findings do you consider most concerning and of the highest priority?

Republican candidate Catherine Truitt

Immediately following the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, many states fought the integration of public schools. Some simply moved slowly while others passed laws to implement a deliberate blocking strategy called “massive resistance.” Burley Mitchell, a young North Carolina attorney, witnessed this refusal while working alongside Howard Manning, Sr., an attorney for Wake County Schools. To ensure the North Carolina Federal Courts did what they were supposed to do, Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Manning visited those courts to remind them of their mandate.  

Decades later, Chief Justice Mitchell would draw a comparison between Brown and a more recent case of his. While Brown ruled that racial segregation in schools was unconstitutional, it made no mention of the quality of integrated schools. At a 2016 Friday Institute ceremony for Justice Howard Manning, Jr., Chief Justice Mitchell reminded the room that simply having a teacher with textbooks in a classroom in a building is not enough. We must provide a quality teacher who uses quality resources in a well-resourced classroom and building.  This idea — that the State has a constitutional obligation to ensure that all students receive a sound, basic education regardless of zip code — is the hallmark of Leandro v. State.

The WestEd report, produced at the request of the Leandro plaintiffs and agreed to by Judge Lee in early 2018, outlines where the State has failed to make investments in schools such that high-poverty schools can provide their students a sound, basic education. There are eight “critical need areas” defined in the report, all interconnected and necessary for school improvement across the state. However, one critical need area in particular — Support for High Poverty Schools — encompasses many of the other needs in its recommendations. In my opinion, this is the linchpin of the 300-page report.

More than one-third of North Carolina’s students are considered high poverty.  These are common characteristics of a typical high poverty school:

  • Due to a diminished local tax base, there are dramatically fewer resources available to build and maintain quality schools, provide band programs, athletic equipment, art supplies, and other opportunities to students — even though such needs are substantially higher in these schools.
  • Teachers are inexperienced and have been trained in lateral entry educator prep programs, which studies show produce less-effective teachers as a whole.
  • There are fewer school support staff, such as counselors, social workers, nurses, and school psychologists, leaving teachers to take care of the tasks these important personnel carry out. 
  • High rates of teacher and building leadership turnover (“churn”) contributing to educational and organizational instability.
  • A meaningful percentage of students rely on schools to provide their only square meal of the day.
  • Students are less likely to have access to the internet at home and devices at home or at school.

This list is not exhaustive, and the solutions to these challenges are many and expensive. Certainly, there are many outstanding school leaders who are able to overcome some of these challenges, but they are fighting against the tide. The WestEd report amortizes the total cost of its recommendations over eight years.  But we cannot afford to wait any longer. We have a moral obligation to make sure that “all” means all. Here are the concrete actions I would prioritize immediately if elected:

  1. Collaborate with superintendents to provide ongoing professional development for all school personnel on culturally responsive teaching and positive discipline practices.
  2. Revise the school accountability model so that high poverty schools are rewarded for their gains and teachers will want to be part of that change.
  3. Fund school support personnel — school nurses, psychologists, social workers, and school counselors — at the recommended ratios so that students’ needs are met and teachers can teach.
  4. Revise school funding formulas so that high poverty districts can attract  high-quality teachers; eliminate the minimum funding threshold for English language learners and at-risk students; and provide funding flexibility so that local school leaders can match resources where they are needed most.

At that same 2016 ceremony, Chief Justice Mitchell gave this caveat: money is not necessarily the answer. He reminded the audience that some of the highest funded school districts in the country have the worst outcomes. But one thing is for certain: we cannot continue to do things the way we have been doing them for over 50 years and expect a better outcome. The system we have is perfectly designed to produce the results we have, and those results continue to fail generation after generation of high poverty students across our state. It’s time we took a long, hard look at ourselves and recognized that resistance to change is as abominable now as it was in 1954.

Democratic candidate Jen Mangrum

2017 marked 23 years since five low-wealth school districts banded together to file ​Leandro v. State​. Over the ensuing 23 years, the courts consistently found that North Carolina was failing in its most basic constitutional duty: providing every child in this state with access to a good education. That was the verdict:

  • in 1997 when the Supreme Court declared that every child in the state has the right to the “opportunity to receive a sound basic education,”
  • in 2002 when the courts determined that it’s the state’s responsibility to provide the “resources necessary to support the effective instructional program” in every school so that the educational needs of all children can be met, and
  • in 2017 when all the parties in the case, including the state, asked Judge David Lee to appoint an independent expert consultant to provide recommendations of how the state can meet its constitutional obligation.

The resulting Leandro report lays out an eight-year plan for North Carolina to finally provide children with the education they are owed under our constitution. In the words of Judge Lee, the report represents the “specific actions necessary to achieve sustained compliance with the constitutional mandates articulated in this [Leandro] case.”

In other words, the Leandro report represents ​everything​ we need to do just to achieve constitutional compliance. It’s not a menu of options from which lawmakers get to pick and choose. If they are to live up to their oath of office, ​legislators must enact the entire slate of reforms.

Judge Lee’s January 2020 court order​ made clear that Leandro compliance ​requires​ seven areas of reform that largely overlap with the Leandro consultant’s report. Any experienced educator will recognize that none of these reforms stands upon their own. For example, you can’t attract and retain a high-quality, diverse teaching force unless you also have a qualified, well-prepared principal in every school. We won’t be able to support low-performing schools and districts unless we also have a state funding model that provides adequate, efficient, and equitable resources. All of these recommendations work together to create a strong educational system that works for all students. ​None are optional.

The more important question is how will I, as State Superintendent, hold the General Assembly accountable for implementing these reforms and necessary investments. As Superintendent, I will:

  • Engage with families to show them how the education they are receiving continues to fall short of the education our constitution says they deserve. Families with younger students will readily fight for schools that have teacher assistants, school nurses, and thriving arts programs. Families with older students will readily fight for schools with culturally-relevant curricula, access to advanced coursework and dual credit opportunities, and enrichment opportunities that make school relevant and enjoyable.
  • Organize educators to fight for the working conditions they deserve. Nobody is more aware of how our kids have been shortchanged by lawmakers than our educators. I know we can build upon the incredibly impressive actions of the past two years to create a system where educator pay is competitive with other industries and teachers are given the flexibility to prioritize the flourishing of their students rather than creating effective test-takers.
  • Create an Office of Equity within DPI that will identify areas where we are falling short of our obligations to children and offer solutions for closing opportunity gaps. We must acknowledge that black, brown, native, low-income, English-learning, LGBTQ, and rural students have paid the highest price from lawmakers’ unwillingness to create and fund a sound basic education system. This office will be vital in continually monitoring and holding accountable the state’s progress towards ensuring compliance with Leandro.

It’s important to remember something highlighted by the Leandro report. Before 2010, North Carolina was making progress towards creating schools that work well for all students. Achievement was rising and opportunity gaps were narrowing. The rest of the country noticed. But after the General Assembly changed hands in 2010, we went from being the state of education to the state of HB2. Things have only gotten worse since then. Our Republican leadership — particularly under the McCrory administration — committed to austerity budgets and harmful school privatization schemes. This agenda, provided by ALEC and friends, has benefited the donor class while shortchanging our children. We must embrace the new course outlined in the Leandro report.

Sadly, we’re already hearing rumblings from the Legislative Building that leadership is unwilling to make the investments and reforms mandated by our constitution, claiming that the courts can’t make them fulfill their constitutional oaths. North Carolina has seen this before. It’s the same twisted excuse used by school segregationists to avoid compliance with ​Brown v. Board of Education ​and ​Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education​. History is repeating itself with General Assembly leadership ignoring the courts in order to maintain a status quo that disproportionately harms students of color. That’s why it’s vital to have a State Superintendent with a plan to fight for the reforms and investments — all of them, not just a few — necessary to finally give our students the education they are owed.

Background on Leandro

The Leandro case has been a long-running theme in North Carolina education since 1994 when families from five low-wealth counties sued the state, claiming North Carolina was not providing their kids with the same educational opportunities as students in higher-income districts. The State Supreme Court ultimately said that the state’s children have a fundamental right to the “opportunity to receive a sound basic education” and that North Carolina had not lived up to that constitutional requirement. 

Both sides in the Leandro case agreed back in 2017 that an independent consultant should be chosen to make recommendations on how the state can ensure quality education for every North Carolina child.

That consultant was WestEd, and the organization released a report in late 2019 that laid out how the state can ensure that all students in North Carolina have the opportunity for a “sound basic education.”

A consent order followed, signed by the Judge in the case, and the next step was for the parties to deliver a report that laid out how to meet the short-term goals of the West-Ed report. That report dropped Monday.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.