by Dr. Terry Stoops
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
Expect to hear the word “Leandro” much more in the months ahead, as advocacy groups and activists attempt to use the courts to engineer an end-run around voters and elected legislators to score a massive payday for public schools.
In 1994, a group of parents filed a lawsuit that would be known as Leandro v. State of North Carolina. The case centers on the constitutional requirement that the state provide an opportunity for all public school children to receive a “sound basic education.” It remains active today thanks to a decision by the NC Supreme Court to remand the case to a lower court indefinitely. For years, Superior Court Judge Howard Manning monitored the state’s compliance with the ruling. 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, which they delivered in December 2019. The Comprehensive Remedial Plan, delivered to the court on the Ides of March, stabs taxpayers in the front by drawing on costly recommendations in both the WestEd report and Gov. Roy Cooper’s Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education.
Despite being billed as a “comprehensive” plan, the recent report submitted to Judge Lee lacks critical details about the measures purported to meet the constitutional requirement to provide all children an “opportunity for a sound basic education.” Moreover, it would cause spending on non-classroom personnel to surge by at least $1 billion by 2028, the final year of this initial plan. Finally, it includes no input from the one entity that the North Carolina State Constitution tasks with collecting and spending tax dollars: the North Carolina General Assembly.
Of the dozens of recommendations included in the plan, 17 action items have no cost estimate included. Instead, the report authors write 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 with those of other professions, then taxpayers could be on the hook for billions more through FY 2028.
Other items simply add to our state’s education bureaucracy. For example, one action item is to spend $400,000 annually to support a new Office of Equity Affairs at the NC Department of Public Instruction (NC DPI). The stated purpose of this office is to “direct the recruitment and retention of a diverse educator workforce.” On its face, it may be a worthy goal, but there is ample reason to doubt the capacity of a handful of high-paid bureaucrats in Raleigh to achieve it.
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.
And the spending spree on non-classroom personnel would not end there. Additional funding for noninstructional support staff (child nutrition, transportation, and maintenance personnel) would eventually add $80.5 million to the state budget each year. Funds for a Career and Postsecondary Planning Director at NC DPI and Career Development Coordinators in middle and high schools across the state would necessitate annual expenditures exceeding $106 million when fully implemented. Over $743 million would be required to hire thousands of specialized instructional support personnel (SISP), including school counselors, nurses, social workers, and psychologists.
Democratic elected officials, the NC Association of Educators, and public school advocacy organizations are investing significant resources into a public awareness campaign designed to pressure the Republican-led General Assembly into adopting the Comprehensive Remedial Plan recommendations. If lawmakers refuse to do so, Leandro enthusiasts hope that Judge Lee will spurn the separation of powers and try to compel them to spend the money through a court dictate. The next court hearing in the case will occur in April or May.
True to form, Cooper’s state budget recommendations declare that he “is committed to pursuing the policy and programmatic changes outlined in the [Comprehensive Remedial] Plan and to providing the resources necessary to achieve the actions in the Plan over the next biennium and in future fiscal years.” That commitment included over $1.5 billion in additional state education spending and hundreds of millions more in federal coronavirus aid dollars.
The next step is for the Republican leadership in the General Assembly to unveil their proposed budget for the biennium, which likely will reject the governor’s irresponsible spending recommendations and focus spending on research-based programs that raise student achievement.