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Statewide coalition demands action to ensure a sound, basic education for all students

Students of Frank Porter Graham Elementary school walk from carpool toward the school early in the morning on March 26, 2021.

A community-led coalition is demanding legislators fulfill their promise to ensure equitable education for all students in North Carolina, based on a court-ordered action plan from 2019. 

Communities for the Education of Every Child NC is comprised of multiple organizations that specialize in various education and equity-related issues across the state. 

Sarah Montgomery is the senior policy advocate with the Education and Law Project of the N.C. Justice Center, which is one of Every Child NC’s five coordinating committee members. Montgomery said the coalition aims to unite organizations that work to improve educational equity.

“We set out not to create a whole new body of work,” Montgomery said. “But to really make sure that we’re positioning advocates to strengthen the work they’re already doing in their communities.”

Every Child NC began organizing in 2019 after the release of “Sound Basic Education for All: An Action Plan for North Carolina,” a court-ordered analysis by an outside consulting group, WestEd.

The WestEd report identified eight critical needs that must be met for the state to fulfill its constitutional obligation. It was ordered based on North Carolina’s failure to comply with constitutional standards to provide all students with a “sound basic education” — a precedent determined in the 1994 N.C. Supreme Court Case Leandro v. State of North Carolina, where five school districts sued the N.C. Education System for inadequate funding.

The court ruled in 1997  — and again in 2004 — that North Carolina Schools are required to provide students with an equitable education. 

But in the years following the Leandro decision, the state continued to rank one as of the lowest in the country in terms of school funding and equity. In fact, after 2009, funding for state schools decreased. North Carolina would have to increase its spending by $3.6 billion in order to reach the average spending level in the country.

Low funding disproportionately affects students from high-risk backgrounds: students with disabilities, students of color, rural and low-income students, English learners and early childhood students. Every Child NC identifies these vulnerable populations as a main focus of their work. 

On March 15, the state submitted The Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan to the N.C. Supreme Court outlining the action steps North Carolina will take to provide a sound, basic education to every student by 2030. 

The next week, Gov. Roy Cooper revealed his budget proposal for 2021-2023, which includes $585.6 million for the fiscal year 2021-22 and $1 billion for the fiscal year 2022-2023 to address the needs determined in the Leandro plan.

Rev. Paul Ford, president of the Board of Directors for Action4Equity — one of Every Child NC’s partners — said the WestEd report served as a catalyst for bringing attention to education inequity across the state.

“The Leandro report makes clear that, at a fundamental level, we have not for some time — if ever— adequately funded the schools in this state,” Ford said. “And we have not fulfilled the fundamental premise of providing a quality education to the children in our state.”

School funding varies greatly by district. North Carolina faces huge funding disparities between counties with high taxable resources, like Orange County, and poorer counties. Montgomery said Every Child NC is working to close the gaps between school districts and the gaps between high and low-risk students in all districts.

Orange County Schools and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools have developed their own plans to address inequity. In January 2019, the OCS Board of Education passed a racial equity policy that aimed to reduce the achievement gap between white and non-white students. In 2018, CHCCS launched a strategic plan to repair inequities and supply every student with a successful school experience.

Jeff Nash, public information officer for CHCCS, said in an email that the district maintains close relationships and regular conversations with local delegates, and he is confident that they will do the best they can to move schools forward.

But Montgomery said the work of Every Child NC doesn’t end with policy and budget proposals. She said meeting the action steps outlined in the Leandro plan represents the bare minimum North Carolina could do for its students.

“We are going to continue to be that group that continues to hold them accountable and put pressure, every budget cycle,” Montgomery said, “Our work is not going to go away.”

Montgomery and Ford see Every Child NC as a radical way to approach the state’s education issues. Ford said their community-based approach prevents “siloism” between organizations that work separately to address the same issues.  

“If we can set aside the silo mentality and begin to come together and work together,” Ford said, “we have so many more resources that we can leverage to fully amplify our voice.”


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