North Carolina Superior Court Judge David Lee ordered the state to formulate a plan to increase spending on K-12 education by an estimated $8 billion.
“North Carolina’s PreK-12 public education system leaves too many students behind—especially students of color and economically disadvantaged students,” Lee’s order stated. “As a result, thousands of students are not being prepared for full participation in the global, interconnected economy and the society in which they will live, work and engage as citizens.”
Quarter-Century of Litigation
Lee’s order is the latest step in a long-running lawsuit, Leandro v. State of North Carolina, which began in 1994. In 1997, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled the state constitution guarantees every child “an opportunity to receive a sound basic education.” In 2004, the state Supreme Court ruled the government’s efforts to provide such an education to poor children were inadequate.
In 2018, Lee called for an independent consultant to advise him on how North Carolina could best meet its constitutional mandate. Lee approved WestEd, a nonprofit consulting firm in California selected by agreement of the defendants (which include the State Board of Education) and the plaintiffs (which include several North Carolina school districts).
WestEd recommended expanding early childhood programs, modifying the current state funding model, and revising school accountability systems, in a 300-page report titled “Sound Basic Education for All: An Action Plan for North Carolina,” released by Lee on December 10.
Lee gave state officials until March 30 to propose a plan to implement the consultant’s recommendations, and he scheduled a hearing on the state’s response for April 12.
The plan outlined in the report fails to take into account for how the proposed spending increases will affect taxpayers, says Terry Stoops, vice president for research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation.
“Consulting firms like WestEd do not consider the opportunity costs and broader economic effects of extracting billions from North Carolina taxpayers when they make their recommendations,” Stoops said. “Their analysis suggests spending on public schools yields nothing but benefits.”
In Fiscal Year 2018, North Carolina spent nearly $15.8 billion on its public education system, including federal, state, and local tax funds, according to the John Locke Foundation. WestEd’s proposed spending increase could undermine tax relief from reforms adopted in North Carolina in 2013, Stoops says.
“The WestEd report recommends North Carolina taxpayers fork over an additional $8 billion over the next eight years,” Stoops said. “A budget increase of that magnitude would unravel much of the tax relief afforded to North Carolinians since Republican lawmakers implemented a comprehensive tax reform package in 2013.”
‘Unleash the Power of Choice’
The report also fails to consider school choice as a viable solution to the problems of public education and overestimates the correlation between spending and educational outcomes, says Bob Luebke, director of policy at the Civitas Institute in Raleigh, North Carolina.
“First, the recommendations are hyper-focused on funding,” Luebke said. “Yes, money is important, but WestEd seems to forget the link between money and improved student outcomes is inconclusive at best. To the dismay of many, the recommendations also totally overlook school choice as a possible solution to the current problems.”
WestEd’s neglect of charter schools eliminates a cost-effective solution to remedy North Carolina’s educational decline, Stoops says.
“WestEd’s recommendations almost entirely ignore charter schools, which are a cost-effective means of providing a high-quality public education to disadvantaged students,” Stoops said. “Rather than throw more money at a district system that often fails our most vulnerable children, lawmakers and state education leaders should unleash the power of choice.”
‘Collision Course’ Set?
The WestEd report poses a legal dilemma regarding the separation of powers clause in the North Carolina State Constitution, which states the authority to allocate money belongs to the legislature, not the courts, Luebke says.
“Judge Lee’s consent order to implement the WestEd plan could potentially place the courts and the legislature on a collision course,” Luebke said. “According to the state constitution, only the legislature is authorized to appropriate money. A court order saying the legislature must spend an additional number of dollars is, in the eyes of many, a clear violation of the separation of powers clause.”
The issues are larger than the scope of WestEd’s report, and unless the state shifts its attention to fixing systemic failures, money will continue to be wasted, Stoops says.
“WestEd recommends throwing billions of dollars at a system lacking in transparency, accountability, and adaptability,” Stoops said. “No amount of money will be able to correct leadership failures, structural deficiencies, and governance concerns impairing North Carolina public schools. Why should North Carolinians be forced to pour money into a system having a governance structure that fails to establish a clear leader of the state’s public schools?”
Hayley Sledge (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes from Dayton, Ohio.
Judge David Lee, “Consent Order Regarding Need for Remedial, Systemic Actions for the Achievement of Leandro Compliance,” North Carolina Superior Court, January 21, 2020: https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/consent-order-regarding-need-for-remedial-systemic-actions-for-the-achievement-of-leandro-compliance
“Sound Basic Education for All: An Action Plan for North Carolina,” WestEd, Learning Policy Institute, and Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at North Carolina State University, December 10, 2019: https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/sound-basic-education-for-all-an-action-plan-for-north-carolina