On September 1, Judge David Lee signed a consent order supporting a $427 million down payment on the $8 billion remedial plan proposed by the plaintiffs and defendants in the ongoing Leandro school funding case. The plan was based on a mediocre report published by California-based consulting firm WestEd last year.

The consent order requires the defendants to implement a series of remedial actions, to work with the plaintiffs to develop a long-term remedial plan, and to submit quarterly reports to Judge Lee. Notably, the latest consent order does not try to compel the General Assembly to appropriate the money. The North Carolina Constitution prohibits the court from doing so. The North Carolina General Assembly is the sole branch of state government with the power to determine how state taxpayer dollars are spent.

But even if the legislature used federal coronavirus relief funding to cover the cost of the remedial plan (odd for a case dealing with state funding), there is little in the plan that would benefit students directly. My favorite action step (Action Step IV.A.2.) is the requirement that state officials change the name of the Kindergarten Entry Assessment to the Early Learning Inventory. This is easy to achieve but will do nothing to address the educational needs of disadvantaged students.

Moreover, the remedial plan requires more than just the cooperation of the General Assembly. Instead, it requires the defendants to coordinate with multiple entities that never have been involved in the Leandro case or have only a tangential connection to it. They include the following:

  • North Carolina Teaching Fellows Program administered by the University of North Carolina System Office, State Education Assistance Authority, and the Teaching Fellows Commission (Action Step I.A.1–6.)
  • DRIVE Task Force administered by the Governor’s Office (Action Step I.B.1–2.)
  • NC New Teacher Support Program at East Carolina University (Action Step I.C.)
  • NC Pre-K programs administered by the NC Department of Health and Human Services (Action Step VI.A. and B.)
  • NC Department of Health and Human Services NC Infant-Toddler Program (Action Step VI.C.)
  • Smart Start administered by The North Carolina Partnership for Children, Inc., and 75 local partnerships (Action Step VI.D.)
  • NC Department of Health and Human Services Child Care WAGE$ Project (Action Step VI.E.)
  • NC Community College System’s College Career Ready Graduate courses (Action Step VII.A.)
  • NC Community College System Career Coaches (Action Step VII. C.1.)
  • Chapel Hill–based nonprofit College Advising Corps (Action Step VII. C.2.)

Shockingly, Judge Lee and the Leandro parties haven’t questioned the extraordinary expansion of the Leandro remedy to include groups, programs, and agencies far outside of the public K-12 system. It is part of their continuing failure to ask basic questions about the feasibility of the recommendations in the WestEd report and their peculiar aversion to scrutinizing the value of carrying out the actions steps that flow from it. Apparently, WestEd’s report is as infallible as the Holy Scriptures and demands similar levels of veneration from its disciples.

Contrast their deference to WestEd technocrats with former Leandro judge Howard Manning’s healthy skepticism of education “experts” and their nearly two decades-long effort to convince Manning to compel the legislature to throw more money at the problem. In a recent interview with David Crabtree of WRAL, Judge Manning commented, “I realized that money can’t buy you quality. … You don’t just raise everybody’s salaries by $10,000 a year and expect to have all grades go up by 20%, because it’s not going to happen.”

He’s right, and Judge Lee would be wise to draw from Judge Manning’s insight into the case. Unlike Lee, for example, Manning never would have rubber-stamped the WestEd report without bringing its authors into the courtroom for a chinwag.

Despite what Judge Lee and Leandro parties believe, however, the science of raising student achievement for disadvantaged children has not been settled. Certainly, WestEd does not possess the magic formula for improving public schools in North Carolina or any other state paying them to formulate an action plan. The WestEd report is little more than a hodgepodge of recommendations designed to satisfy politicians, technocrats, and other elites who want to spend billions more on North Carolina public schools.

If the courts want to ensure that all children have an opportunity to receive a sound, basic education, they ought to start by trusting the constitutionally established means of deliberation and lawmaking and challenge elected officials to meet the needs of individual children through the empowerment of families, communities, and educators.