On July 25, 2017, Governor Roy Cooper announced the creation of the Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education.  The name of the commission name references the ongoing Leandro vs. State of North Carolina court case, a 1994 lawsuit that centers on the state’s constitutional duty to provide a “sound basic education” to all public school students.  The primary goal of the commission is to provide recommendations that complement the Leandro action plan drafted by California-based consulting firm WestEd.  Superior Court Judge David Lee, who monitors the state’s compliance with the Leandro ruling, received the WestEd report two weeks ago but has not released it to the public.  This led Gov. Cooper to extend the commission beyond its last scheduled meeting on June 25.

The governor has a negligible role in the Leandro case.  The primary parties involved are school districts, the General Assembly, the Department of Public Instruction, and the State Board of Education, whose members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the General Assembly.  Convening a commission serves multiple goals.  It is an attempt by the Cooper administration to play a larger role in Leandro deliberations and possibly reap political benefits by doing so. It is also a cynical effort to elevate the public school advocates that support his administration.  That is one reason why Gov. Cooper appointed N.C. Association of Educators president Mark Jewell and several prominent Democrats to the 17-member commission.  Clearly, ideological diversity was the last thing on his mind when selecting who would serve on the commission.

The members of the commission met last week to discuss drafts of their five work group priorities and recommendations.  Overall, the documents featured a few reasonable ideas overshadowed by calls for immense increases in state funding and a vision for public education that is aligned with its mostly left-leaning membership.  Outcomes are mentioned but rarely quantified.  The group downplays the bridge between funding increases and a sound basic education, that is, implementation.

Unsurprisingly, the Finance and Resources Work Group focused mostly on money and the need for more of it on personnel, training, school facilities, Department of Public Instruction staff, etc.  Work group members recommended budgetary flexibility in some areas but not others.  They would like a state funding allotment system that provides “appropriate” flexibility while continuing to impose a statewide salary schedule on all school districts.

Commission members also seek to modify the funding for charter school enrollment increases, claiming that “the expansion of charter schools has begun to place a financial and planning burden on traditional public schools.”  At first glance, the inclusion of public charter schools was unusual.  After all, only around 7 percent of the state’s children attend charter schools, and Judge Lee’s predecessor, Judge Howard Manning, rarely talked about them.  But school choice opponents will try to use Leandro to undermine the growth of their public charter school competitors.

The Leandro chapter in “A Guide to Student Advocacy in North Carolina,” a 2015 publication of the North Carolina Bar Association Foundation, depicts charter schools as a barrier to a sound basic education.  The author (naturally employing scare quotes) writes,

As these data suggeset [sic], many children across the state — particularly at-risk children — are not receiving a sound basic education in our public schools.  Although some policymakers believe the solution to this problem is to increase the number of charter schools or to allow students to attend unaccountable private schools with taxpayer-funded vouchers, research and data do not support these “solutions.” Furthermore, these “solutions” siphon money away from the state’s traditional public schools, which educate the vast majority of children in North Carolina.

If the plaintiffs in the case can convince Judge Lee that charter schools impede the fulfillment of the constitutional mandate, then he may impose limitations on them through a court order.

The Teacher Work Group addressed the training, recruitment, and retention of teachers, teacher assistants, and instructional support personnel.  There are reasonable ideas here, such as annual bonuses and a state loan repayment program for teachers who commit to teaching in a low wealth school district or high poverty school for multiple years. Members wisely recommended differentiated pay for teachers in certification areas that have severe shortages.  The recommendation to “respect” teachers is impossible to quantify and therefore, cannot be implemented in any meaningful way.  Likewise, their desire for a “reasonable, lower pressure assessment system” is aspirational but impractical.

The nine priorities on the Principal Work Group list tackled issues including principal training and compensation.  While I disagree that the principal salary schedule should be revised to have more of an emphasis on experience, I agree that the state should “provide more incentives for principals to pursue school leadership opportunities that best meet their leadership strengths.”  Certainly, principals who have been successful at a particular type of school should not be forced to pursue a central office position to receive a substantially higher salary.

The Early Childhood/“Whole Child” Work Group produced a comprehensive list of structural reforms and desired funding increases.  Unlike the other work groups, this one included recommendations dealing with the collection, analysis, and use of data.  To their credit, they wanted to ensure that the way effectiveness is measured in schools “is useful and meaningful to educators, families, students, and other stakeholders.”  The Early Childhood/“Whole Child” Work Group had much more to say about data than any other work group, including the assessment and accountability team.

In fact, the Assessment and Accountability Work Group had the fewest recommendations, and was, by far, the most disappointing of the five groups. Members appear to be content with the status quo, despite the Teacher Work Group’s desire to transition to a “reasonable, lower pressure assessment system.”  Members seem to have embraced the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and the existing state-run testing system.  They agree that the Department of Public Instruction should be directing school and district turnaround efforts.  On the plus side, it’s also the only work group that did not dwell on the desire for more money.

Overall, it would be a mistake to dismiss the recommendations of the Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education simply because of its fixation on funding or disregard for school choice.  There is still time for the commission to make changes to the draft documents presented last week.  But that does not mean that the lawmakers or the courts should adopt the lot without scrutinizing the empirical basis for the recommendations and the values that underlie them.