North Carolina has made little progress providing every child "an opportunity to receive a sound basic education"since the state Supreme Court declared the constitutional mandate in 1997, according to a report released Tuesday addressing public education shortfalls and student achievement.
The findings from California-based WestEd stem from a trial judge's order last year seeking an outside group to recommend a pathway to comply fully with the so-called Leandro decision — named after one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging funding for poor school systems. Some proposals in the report suggest it could cost several billion dollars over eight years to comply. It's difficult for a judge to force the General Assembly to spend the money, however, since legislators appropriate state funds.
The 300-page report focuses on eight areas for improvement, including a revision of the state's school funding model, directives to provide "qualified" and well-prepared" staff and principals in every school, and offerings for low-performing schools and economically disadvantaged students.
Judge David Lee, who took over the case when Judge Howard Manning retired, wrote last year that the legal right established in the 1997 decision "continues to be denied to hundreds of thousands of North Carolina children," according to the report. The report's authors said the number of students at risk of educational failure has increased, too.
The report said "the state is further away from meeting its constitutional obligation to provide every child with the opportunity for a sound basic education than it was when the Supreme Court of North Carolina issued the Leandro decision more than 20 years ago."
It also found that per-pupil spending declined between 2009-10 and 2017, and that distribution of education funds is inequitable. Last year's state budget directed over $9.5 billion to the public schools. But there isn't enough funding to meet the needs of students, the report said.
The report authors presented scenarios in which complying with Leandro would cost $6.9 billion combined over eight years — or $860 million more per year, followed by ongoing investments of $463 million annually.
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who convened a special commission to work with the lawsuit plaintiffs and move the state toward compliance, praised the report and vowed to keep working toward a solution. The state is a defendant in the case.
"This groundbreaking report shows that we need to make significant investments in our public schools, strengthen our teacher and principal pipelines, and greatly expand early childhood learning opportunities for our most at-risk students," Cooper said in a release.
House Minority Leader Darren Jackson, a Wake County Democrat, criticized Republicans in charge of the the legislature for failing to meet the Leandro mandate and urged more funding for education when the General Assembly reconvenes next month. The state still lacks a comprehensive two-year budget due to an impasse between Cooper and GOP leaders.
Pat Ryan, a spokesman for Republican Senate leader Phil Berger, said the General Assembly has already increased K-12 spending by nearly $10 billion cumulatively over the past eight years and would have increased it by even more if Cooper hadn't vetoed this year budget. But throwing money at education doesn't necessarily mean student success, he said.
While "money doesn't buy outcomes," Ryan said, "properly funding the education system is a critical priority for both parties, and always has been."
Ryan cites lower student test scores in New York state, which spends more than twice as much per student than North Carolina. In the most recent rankings from the National Education Association, New York spent more per student than any other state, at more than $23,894 per pupil in 2017-2018. In contrast, North Carolina ranks 42nd in per student spending, at $9,645 per pupil.
UNC-Chapel Hill Associate Professor Eric Houck studies education finance, and says Ryan's assertion that funding doesn't affect educational outcomes is a myth not supported by current research.
"In states that have invested additional money, as a result of school finance litigation -- like what Leandro was -- these studies have shown that this increased funding, usually coming from state sources, has dramatic effects," Houck said.
The WestEd report recommends additional funding for public school operating expenses, state sponsored Pre-K, and the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction's support programs.
WestEd produced the report with help of the Learning Policy Institute and the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at North Carolina State University.