by Dr. Terry Stoops
Former Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
This year, budget writers in the North Carolina House and Senate have opted to discuss the state budget with Gov. Roy Cooper to head off another budget showdown. Cooper’s decision to sign or veto the state budget may come down to one issue: the Comprehensive Remedial Plan developed to satisfy the requirements of Leandro v. State of North Carolina.
Adoption of the Leandro plan is too high a price for the governor’s signature. Rejecting the remedial plan is not a rejection of public education nor an abdication of the legislature’s responsibilities to support a general and uniform system of free public schools. Instead, it is an affirmation of North Carolina’s constitutional order and principles of sound governance and fiscal responsibility.
In 2017, the plaintiffs and defendants agreed to allow an independent consultant to advise the judge appointed to oversee Leandro implementation, Judge David Lee, on how to proceed. They selected California-based consultant WestEd to recommend an action plan, and the firm released “Sound Basic Education for All: An Action Plan for North Carolina” in December 2019. The WestEd report formed the basis of a comprehensive remedial plan that Judge Lee expects the General Assembly to implement fully during the current school year.
Despite what Judge Lee and Leandro parties seem to believe, 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 other states that have paid 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.
Moreover, the WestEd report neglects to even consider that a robust statewide system enabling parental school choice could provide a better avenue for students to access a “sound basic education” than dumping billions more of taxpayer dollars into the existing system. In fact, a study report developed in conjunction with “Sound Basic Education for All” urged policy makers to rethink state support for charters, school vouchers, and homeschooling.
Lawmakers were not consulted at any stage of the Comprehensive Remedial Plan’s development nor asked to participate in deliberations about it. Similarly, Cooper failed to appoint any sitting lawmakers to The Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education, a 19-member group created by Cooper in 2017 to formulate Leandro recommendations in consultation with WestEd. Finally, Judge David Lee disregarded an offer extended to him by State Sen. Deanna Ballard to appear before the Senate Education Committee during the 2020 short session. Representatives from the executive and judicial branches seem unwilling to engage in a good-faith conversation with the Republican majority in the General Assembly.
Voters elect legislators to develop education policy, not an out-of-state consultancy firm or unelected judges like Lee.
The North Carolina General Assembly is the sole branch of government with the power to determine how state taxpayer dollars are spent. The power of the purse has been reserved to the elected members of the state legislature since the ratification of the first state constitution in 1776. North Carolinians agree to elect representatives every two years to shoulder the responsibilities to direct tax dollars as a deliberative body. Allowing an unelected judge to direct a significant portion of taxpayer dollars is contrary to the letter and spirit of our state constitution.
If lawmakers implement the first two years of the Comprehensive Remedial Plan, then they implicitly promise to fund the remaining six years of the plan. Moreover, I believe that the current remedial plan is unlikely to succeed, necessitating subsequent (and more costly) court-ordered plans after 2028.
In his June 7, 2021 order, Judge Lee wrote, “The Comprehensive Remedial Plan shall be implemented in full and in accordance with the timelines set forth therein.” The General Assembly would be obligated to approve all parts of the remedial plan, including policies and provisions that do not correspond to their budgetary or policy priorities.
Of the dozens of recommendations included in the plan, cost estimates for 17 items have not been determined. Instead, the report authors wrote that the cost estimates “will be determined on the basis of a study, analysis, or pilot implementation.” For example, the plan sets aside over $232 million for teacher and instructional support staff salaries in fiscal year (FY) 2022 and over $354 million in FY 2023. A $200,000 wage comparability study would determine how much to pay teachers starting in FY 2024. If the researchers contracted for the wage study conclude that teacher and instructional support staff salaries are not comparable to other professions, then taxpayers could be on the hook for billions more through FY 2028.
One future action item is to spend $400,000 annually to support a new Office of Equity Affairs at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. The stated purpose of this office is to “direct the recruitment and retention of a diverse educator workforce.” Even worse, the report calls on the state to increase funding for central office staff “to ensure sufficient funding to implement the reforms necessary to provide all students with a sound basic education.” The total estimated yearly cost of adding central office Leandro czars would reach $58.7 million by FY 2028.
The plaintiffs, defendants, and proponents of court action are eager to push ahead with consent orders that will compel the state to implement WestEd recommendations. Yet they have failed to ask basic questions about the feasibility of the recommendations in the WestEd report, and they have a peculiar aversion to scrutinizing the value of carrying out the actions that would flow from it. Specifically, North Carolina’s disjointed system of governancelikely will mar the implementation of the Comprehensive Remedial Plan. Why would the state embark on a massive expansion of its public school apparatus without first determining who is in charge, and thus ultimately accountable, for its implementation?
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 programs associated with the University of North Carolina System Office, the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority, the North Carolina Teaching Fellows Commission, the governor’s office, East Carolina University, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, the North Carolina Partnership for Children (and its 75 local partnerships), the North Carolina Community College System, and Chapel Hill-based nonprofit College Advising Corps.
Rush Limbaugh famously observed that “Liberals attempt through judicial activism what they cannot win at the ballot box.” Leandro is a cynical attempt to use the power of the courts to increase public education funding. At a time when the public craves cooperation and compromise, Leandro enthusiasts zealously embraced judicial activism.