In 1997, the N.C. Supreme Court ruled that the right for each child to receive a sound basic education was protected by the state’s constitution.
Decades later, the parties to the case have all agreed North Carolina must do more to ensure that this right is protected.
N.C. Superior Court Judge David Lee recently filed a consent order in response to the Leandro v. State of North Carolina case, in which five North Carolina school districts sued the state claiming they didn’t have enough money to provide their children with an adequate education. In the order, he said the state was not doing enough to provide students a sound, basic education.
“North Carolina’s PreK-12 system leaves too many students behind — especially students of color and economically disadvantaged students," he said in the order.
This comes after a 2019 report by WestEd, a California-based education nonprofit organization, outlined critical ways in which the state’s educational system was lacking. The report also put forth recommendations to help improve the system, including the provision of a qualified teaching staff for every school and creating a support system to help low-performing schools improve.
Many others within the state agree and are looking for ways to improve the situation.
Sarah Montgomery, a policy advocate with the Education and Law Project at the N.C. Justice Center, said she believes the state’s promise of equal education has not yet been fulfilled.
She said the state still ranks in the bottom fifth in teacher pay and competitiveness, while also not contributing enough from the state’s budget to education. She said the lack of progress on the Leandro case and the state’s unwillingness to make changes to its policies have caused North Carolina to fall behind.
“The lack of progress on the court case is happening within this larger context of a really aggressive assault on public education that comes with ten years of drastically underfunding the system, and putting in place some really regressive policies that have contributed to this backslide," Montgomery said.
That is why the Justice Center and other community groups are coming together to fight back and push for progress.
Montgomery said Justice Center has coupled with informal community and parent groups, the NAACP, NC Child, the North Carolina Association of Educators and other groups in an attempt to form a coalition to hold the state accountable to implementing the improvements and recommendations put forth in the WestEd report.
Emily Parker, a senior at UNC majoring in economics and public policy, is an intern for the Justice Center who is working to help build this community coalition.
She said being able to see the community aspect of school funding in action has been informative. She said she found it very interesting that people from all sorts of different groups, including faith groups, LatinX students and students with learning disabilities, coming together to push to make schools better for all children.
Parker said she is now trying to reach out to more members of the community, particularly students, to share their stories about growing up in the North Carolina educational system.
“It’s a crazy issue that impacts a lot of people that go to UNC but not a lot of people know about it,” she said.
She said she has been talking to different people in and out of her classes to try and see how they have been impacted by underfunding in schools, be it through the use of antiquated textbooks, canceled arts programs and more.
Parker said she believes involving the students that were directly affected by the adverse circumstances of an underfunded educational system would help provide an important perspective in the fight to improve public schools across the state.
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