For years, North Carolina has been ranked as one of the lowest states for education funding — a situation that has had a ripple effect for mental health support for students.
In January, the Education Law Center ranked North Carolina at No. 48 out of 51 states (including Washington, D.C.) for education funding. Heather Koons, the communications director for Public Schools First NC, said when schools can’t afford the appropriate number of specialized support staff, students don’t get the mental and behavioral health support that they need.
In 1994, a set of students, parents and school districts in five counties filed the Leandro v. State of North Carolina landmark case. In 1997, the N.C. Supreme Court decided that the state had a constitutional obligation to provide a sound, basic education for all students. That decision led to a 30-year-long battle for public schools to receive more funding from the North Carolina legislature.
Following the Leandro decision, no significant changes have been made to fully fund the Leandro plan, despite multiple court cases affirming that the legislature has an obligation to do so — most recently in November 2022. During the 2022-23 fiscal year, North Carolina finished with a more than $3 billion surplus, and the education budget fell $443 million short of fully funding the Leandro Plan for the year.
“So it's not that we don't have the money, it's that certain legislators are choosing not to spend it on our schools. And I think that point needs to be made very clear,” Koons said.
The cost of education varies from district to district, and some counties struggle to afford the bare minimum for their schools, said Stuart Egan, a public school teacher and public schools advocate.As a result, many schools across the state struggle to maintain facilities and staff, he said.
“It is incumbent that the state makes sure that those needs are fulfilled, because they are tasked with it through the state constitution,” Egan said.
Mental health, Egan said, while not an actual line item in the budget, is tied to other essential budget items and resources, such as nurses and counselors.
Koons said that when schools can’t afford the appropriate number of specialized support staff, students don’t get the mental and behavioral health support that they need.