Nov. 10 marked a historic moment in North Carolina’s educational history: Judge David Lee ordered the state to transfer $1.7 billion from our multi-billion dollar reserve to increase funding for public schools.
Though the North Carolina General Assembly may attempt to circumvent the court order (effective in 30 days), North Carolinians need this increase in funding and should do what we can to support it. The court order emerged after Judge Lee’s proposal of a broad-sweeping seven-year plan earlier this fall to allocate $5.6 billion to retain quality teachers and principals, invest in affordable early education (like pre-school and daycare) and create more pathways to college and careers from NC public schools. The evidence-based proposal, called the Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan, would restructure the way our state supports students in lower wealth districts and those who have disabilities or limited English proficiencies.
Legislators have a constitutional responsibility to provide all students in the state of North Carolina with a “sound basic education” established in the landmark ruling in Leandro vs. North Carolina (1994). However, countless dismal stories from North Carolina teachers and students demonstrate severe inadequacies in academic support and unsafe facilities conditions, proving that the General Assembly has not been fulfilling its constitutional duty.
In an August press conference held outside of the NC Legislature by Every Child NC, student, teacher and parent advocates were given a platform to share their traumatic experiences and support the Leandro Plan.
During the conference, previous DPS student Naomi Hodges remarked, “It was really normal to have teachers who had 2 and 3 jobs, or water in the bathroom that didn’t work because the pipes weren’t fixed, or having standard and honors classes merged because we didn’t have enough teachers.”
Susan Book, mother of a special needs student, described the frustration of seeing her son receive insufficient attention in the traditional classroom environment due to the low wages for classroom aides. “I’m sure there are legislators out there right now talking to members of the press about how generous they are to education,” Book said. “However, all I see is crumbs.”
The problem does not just appear in these powerful stories. Findings from a 2019 statewide report quantify how NC students have been harmed by the General Assembly’s underfunding.
The report found that in the 2016-2017 year, 33 percent of the state’s traditional public schools qualified as high-poverty schools, with 26 percent of traditional public school students attending these schools. The report also reflected that high-poverty schools are largely composed of students from Black, Latinx and Native American families. Students who have (or previously had) limited English proficiencies and students with disabilities are also disproportionately represented in high-poverty schools.
Students at high-poverty schools do not have access to Leandro-mandated tenets of qualified teachers, principles, or sufficient educational resources – and the Legislature has done nothing in recent years to increase this access.
The current funding structure works to hoard resources from communities who need them the most.
Kellie Capps, a teacher of 28 years, told me in a recent conversation that at her current school in suburban Guilford County, there is more local tax money funding teacher salaries and supplements than where she taught previously in rural Randolph County and urban Winston Salem Forsyth County. She recounted that the wealthier and whiter parent-teacher organization in her current district often provides items from teachers’ Amazon Wish Lists to support student learning.
Kellie also articulated infrastructural concerns in rural schools: “(At the start of COVID-19), there was more money coming from federal pandemic relief to buy things like computers and iPads,” she recounted. “But rural counties don’t have the infrastructure to use these new technological resources.”
She was speaking of key infrastructure like widespread broadband, which is largely inaccessible in rural areas; the NC Broadband Infrastructure Office found that less than 60 percent of NC households have internet with adequate download speeds. Lastly, our discussion brought us to health risks in underfunded schools that have been brought to light by the pandemic. School facilities from Durham to Guilford County have fallen into disrepair, making poorly-ventilated classrooms, defunct HVAC systems and mold/asbestos discoveries commonplace.
The Leandro Plan poses an opportunity to remedy years of educational neglect and racialized discrimination imposed on North Carolinians by the General Assembly. The time is now for NC citizens to speak out against the harm being done to our children and communities, both inside and outside of the polls.
While teachers, nonprofits and legal advocates like Judge Lee are crucial advocates in the fight to receive equitable funding, they should not be the only ones holding legislators accountable for the treatment of students. The bottom line is that all North Carolina students deserve educational resources that empower them and support them based on their unique economic, familial, and psychological needs. And school faculty members deserve wages that reflect their care and dedication towards fulfilling the project of educational excellence in our state.
The Leandro Plan is the path forward to ensure that these basic needs of our state are met and when the time comes to vote in next November’s midterms, choose the representatives who stand behind it. I implore you to talk to your neighbors, coworkers, and classmates about the unjust underfunding of NC public schools because when we invest in schools, we invest in communities, economies, and the brighter future of our state.
Student at Barnard College of Columbia University
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