North Carolinians will be hearing the name “Leandro” a lot more in the next few years.

“Leandro” is the name of the lead plaintiff in Leandro v. State of North Carolina, a 1994 lawsuit that centers on the state’s constitutional duty to provide a “sound basic education” to all public school students.  The N.C. Supreme Court decided the case in 1997, and it was remanded to the Superior Court of Wake County to monitor the state’s compliance with the ruling.  For years, Superior Court Judge Howard Manning oversaw the case.  Judge Manning retired in 2015, and Judge David Lee was appointed to take his place.

In 2017, the plaintiffs and defendants agreed to allow an independent consultant to advise Judge Lee on how to proceed.  They selected California-based consulting firm WestEd to recommend an action plan. (Researchers from the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at N.C. State University and the Learning Policy Institute are also part of the evaluation team.)  WestEd delivered its report to Judge David Lee this week, but the contents of the report have not been made public.

Presumably, the WestEd report will recommend that the state meet minimum per-student spending levels.  As we have seen from other states, a common feature of so-called “costing-out” or “adequacy” reports is that the authors tend to focus on financial resources, despite the inconsistent relationship between spending and academic outcomes.  Three years ago, for example, Michigan lawmakers received an adequacy report that recommended an $8,667 per-student funding base for all public schools. A Mackinac Center for Public Policy analysis found that “19 of the 54 successful districts spent an average of 10 percent less than the amount the study recommended.”  In the end, the report appeared to do little to change the trajectory of state budgets or legislation in the state.  But the same cannot be said for the dozens of other states that have been sued by individuals and groups accusing their state of supporting unconstitutional school funding systems.

Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, has been tracking school funding lawsuits and adequacy studies for years.  In Courting Failure: How School Finance Lawsuits Exploit Judges’ Good Intentions and Harm Our Children, Dr. Hanushek argues that costing-out studies, i.e., studies that purport to show how much education spending is adequate to fulfill constitutional requirements, “should be interpreted as political documents, not as scientific studies.”  First, these studies fail to account for inefficiencies in the way that districts spend existing dollars.  Perhaps the problem is not how much the school spends but how they spend it, and an increase in revenue would simply direct more dollars to a system incapable of using resources productively.

Moreover, empirical research has not established a “magic number,” a level of spending that ensures that all children (or even certain categories of children) reach academic proficiency.  If we had one, every public school system in the nation would use it. Instead, consultants provide figures based on the judgment of experts, case studies, or statistical improvisation. Hanushek finds, “Much of the allure of the existing study approaches derives from their commonsensical and logical approaches to analysis, all wrapped in a patina of science.”  The fact that the approach is commonsensical and logical does not mean that the research literature substantiates it.

In fact, a July 2000 policy brief from WestEd concedes the point.  The authors write, “With no clear roadmap to high student achievement, there is yet no answer to the bottom-line question: how much spending will lead to what level of performance? Policymakers still face a calculation that is more art than science. Nonetheless, these models point to a number of rational ways to establish a per-pupil expenditure formula. And this is their real contribution.”  WestEd and other consulting firms generally are careful to caution readers that there is no guarantee that prescribed funding increases will lead to desired outcomes, and I suspect that WestEd’s report for North Carolina urges readers to temper their expectations.  But such warnings often are ignored or dismissed by those eager to have a magic number that can be used by activist judges to compel legislators to spend more money.

The N.C. Constitution authorizes the General Assembly to collect and distribute tax revenue.  In most cases, Judge Manning respected the separation of powers between the judicial and legislative branches. But Judge Lee may take a different approach. For example, he may issue an order that requires the legislature to use WestEd’s recommendations to meet the constitutional guarantee of a “sound basic education.”  Depending on the scope of the recommendations, such an order would prompt a fresh round of lawsuits and public battles over education funding.

If the courts ultimately decide that the state must meet funding targets, North Carolinians should not expect to see dramatic increases in student achievement.  The effects on student outcomes among states that have increased public school spending to comply with court orders are mixed.  For example, Christopher Candelaria and Kenneth Shores found that graduation rates increased in states subject to court-ordered finance reform from 1990-91 to 2009-10.  Yet, they also found that states not subject to court-orders and those that had decreased funding, such as North Carolina and Massachusetts, also improved academic outcomes during this period.  Additionally, student performance declined in states like New Hampshire and Wyoming that had increased funding.

It’s no secret that Democrats, unions, and left-wing advocacy organizations want to pour taxpayer dollars into public schools, and they recognize that the courts are the best way to do so.  If Republican legislative majorities persist, a court order that has the blessing of the N.C. Supreme Court would force lawmakers to spend more money on public education.  If voters hand the majority to Democrats, then they will claim that tax increases are necessary to fulfill their court-ordered obligations to public schools.  A “Leandro lever” imposed by the courts would be a win for special interest.  North Carolina families who choose to keep their children in public schools may find the promise of a “sound basic education” to be just as elusive despite the increased investment.