• During his oversight of the Leandro case, Judge David Lee failed to scrutinize the comprehensive remedial plan that bears his signature
  • The remedial plan formulated by California-based consultant WestEd would necessitate billions in additional spending but is unlikely to fulfill the promise of a sound basic education for all North Carolina children
  • Judge Robinson should acknowledge his predecessor’s credulity and initiate an independent and rigorous review of the remedial plan

Last week, Carolina Journal was the first media outlet to report that North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Newby invoked Rule 2.1 of the General Rules of Practice for the Superior and District Courts to assign oversight of the Leandro v. State of North Carolina case to Special Superior Court Judge Michael Robinson. Judge Robinson will be the third judge to oversee the case since the state Supreme Court remanded it to the trial court over two decades ago. He will replace retired Union County Judge David Lee, who reached the mandatory retirement age of 72 in January.

During his oversight of Leandro, Judge Lee established a record of near-unconditional deference to attorneys and consultants. Lee approved a collusive plan to hire an independent consultant to advise the court on how to proceed.The attorneys for the plaintiffs, defendants, and intervenors then directed a combination of public and private dollars to hire California-based consulting firm WestEd. They expected the firm’s consultants to deliver a report calling for a dramatic increase in tax dollars for public schools. It delivered an eight-year, multibillion-dollar comprehensive remedial plan to the court, and Judge Lee dutifully signed off on the appalling document.

Shortly after Justice Newby issued the order that ousted Judge Lee, Judge Robinson held an initial hearing to establish a timeframe for complying with the North Carolina Supreme Court order to determine how much of the current state budget applies to the remedial plan. During the hearing, attorneys representing the General Assembly urged him to review each line item in the remedial plan to determine its potential for imparting benefits to those attending North Carolina public schools. I agree that an independent and rigorous review of a plan irresponsibly approved by Judge Lee is long overdue.

An independent and rigorous review of the plan irresponsibly approved by Judge Lee is long overdue.

Even a superficial examination of the initial measures recommended by WestEd raises profound concerns about their value. For example, WestEd consultants believe that North Carolina taxpayers should fund five new positions at the Department of Public Instruction: a career and postsecondary planning director and four employees in an Office of Equity Affairs, despite the lack of empirical evidence that state education agency spending produces meaningful increases in student achievement. But the cost of those positions pales compared to the millions of dollars in unnecessary, recurring expenditures that would be required to support the North Carolina Teaching Fellows program, National Board certification, and College Advising Corps.

The remedial plan requires the state to increase funding to support up to 1,500 participants in the North Carolina Teaching Fellows program annually. The Teaching Fellows program awards forgivable loans of $4,125 per semester to outstanding students attending participating universities who commit to becoming special education, science, and math teachers, preferably in low-performing schools. Yet the program’s most recent annual report revealed that many participants choose to repay their loans rather than enter the teaching profession. 

Of the 65 graduates of the Teaching Fellows program, 24 (37%) have elected cash repayment. Even more concerning is that only two graduates (3%) are employed in a low-performing school. Before taxpayers begin investing millions of dollars into a radical expansion of the Teaching Fellows program, they deserve to see evidence that it is fulfilling its mission to increase the supply of high-quality educators in high-need subjects and schools.

Moreover, the remedial plan calls for taxpayers to pay the cost of National Board certification for up to 1,000 teachers annually. Currently, the state offers low-interest loans to cover the $1,900 fee charged by the sponsoring organization, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Those who complete the National Board certification process receive a 12% pay supplement for 10 years and may renew their certification to extend the supplement for another 10 years.

Thanks to the sizable pay differential associated with the certification, the loan requirement has not deterred North Carolina educators from pursuing National Board certification. According to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, 399 educators joined the ranks of North Carolina’s already massive National Board population last year. Nearly one in four North Carolina teachers have National Board certification, and the Tar Heel State leads the nation with nearly 23,500 board-certified teachers. 

Another remedial plan recommendation is for the state to provide matching funds to the College Advising Corps to increase the number of low-income students, first-generation college students, and students from underrepresented populations who enroll in a two- or four-year institution of higher education. In 2018, Stanford University and Evaluation and Assessment Solutions for Education, LLC published results from a randomized controlled trial of College Advising Corps activities in Texas high schools from 2012 to 2017. After controlling for gender, race, age, and free and reduced-price lunch status, the researchers found that the program failed to increase college enrollment significantly. 

To make matters worse, both the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and the College Advising Corps openly embrace critical race theory. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards boasts its commitment to being an “anti-racist and inclusive organization,” championing the foundational tenet of critical race theory that “[s]ystemic racism, inequity, and violence permeate every dimension of American life.” The College Advising Corps offers an extensive “anti-racism” resource page that links to popular critical race theory websites and training videos. Taxpayers should not be forced to support organizations that traffic in racial extremism.

Lastly, nowhere in the WestEd report is the possibility that school choice programs have any role to play in expanding student access to better educational opportunities even acknowledged. 

At a minimum, Judge Robinson should demand that WestEd supply empirical evidence that each line item in their plan would create conditions that all children receive an “opportunity to receive a sound basic education.” As outlined above, much of the plan merely rachets up spending on programs with little to no evidence of success.

Otherwise, he should request that the North Carolina Supreme Court delay its review of the case until legal and policy experts conduct a peer-review process that leads to independent assessments of the findings and recommendations published by WestEd.