This week, North Carolina moved another step closer to addressing its constitutional obligation to ensure every child has access to a sound basic education.

Building upon a January 2020 court order in the Leandro Case, on Monday plaintiffs and defendants together submitted to the court a short-term action plan for fiscal year 2021 that offers specific steps the defendants must take to begin to meet the guarantee that our state offers every child equitable access to a sound basic education, a constitutional right that has been denied for far too long.

“We are encouraged to see the depth and breadth of the Leandro Action Plan. As we see how COVID-19 has laid bare the deep inequities with which our schools must grapple, we support moving forward expediently on key areas contained in the plan for the 2020-21 school year,” said Dr. Mary Ann Wolf, President and Executive Director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina. “As we prepare for the launch of our Dudley Flood Center for Educational Equity and Opportunity during a time of significant national attention on the racial injustices that plague our country, the timeliness and importance of this action plan cannot be understated. The investments and work will ultimately serve to take important steps towards addressing the systemic inequities that exist for so many of our students — especially students of color and low-income students.” 

As we announced in our 2020 Top Education Issues report, the Public School Forum of North Carolina is committed to continuing and intensifying our nonpartisan, evidence-based research and policy analysis, innovative programming, and collaboration with education stakeholders to develop strategies for the implementation of the seven key areas identified in the Leandro action plan that need immediate increased support to meet the needs of North Carolina’s public schools.

Finance and Accountability Systems

The 2021 Leandro Action Plan requires a deep look and revisions to two key policy areas that impact education and equity for our students and communities: finance and accountability systems. Adequate and equitable investments in our statewide system of public education must serve as the foundation of our short- and long-term efforts to realize our constitutional mandate as demonstrated through our annual Local School Finance Study in which the Forum examines the capacity and actual effort that the state’s 100 counties make to support 115 school districts and 196 independent public charter schools through local funding. Our most recent study, published in February 2020, found that the gap in local spending for education between the ten highest and ten lowest-spending counties has increased dramatically since the 1990s when the Leandro case first began. Despite the fact that it is the legal duty of the state to do so, counties have had to take on a substantial role in funding day-to-day instructional expenses for public education because the state has failed to adequately fund our schools. 

The Leandro Action Plan also highlights the role the accountability system plays in moving toward a sound basic education for all students. This includes North Carolina’s A-F school grading system, which evaluates schools primarily on the basis of proficiency, or how students perform on a test at one point in time. These grades are more indicative of which schools have the highest concentrations of students living in poverty than how well educators are teaching our children. Moving forward, the State should focus on developing an accountability system that includes multiple measures and a broader range of assessment types that have the potential to improve equity and provide a more meaningful understanding of a students’ learning and our state’s progress. 

Principal and Teacher Pipelines and Support 

Beyond a revised system of school finance and accountability, we are encouraged to see many other building blocks in this action plan that ultimately serve to create a more robust and equitable public school system in which all students can succeed. Research shows that teachers and school leaders are the first and second most important school-related factors that influence student outcomes (Hanushek, 2011; Leighwood, et. al., 2004). Developing a well-supported and diverse teacher and school leadership pipeline that is accessible to marginalized communities is paramount. The focus on ensuring that all educators have the preparation and professional learning to support racial equity and the whole child — including social and emotional learning and trauma-informed practice — will help to provide the leadership schools must have to meet the needs of all students. The Forum has a longstanding commitment to supporting these efforts through our programmatic and policy work, including the establishment of the NC Teaching Fellows Program (1986-2015), which this action plan calls for expanding, and our focus on building a racially diverse teacher pipeline in our Study Group XVI report and Color of Education work. Our forthcoming research brief on teacher diversity and teacher licensure policies, and the future work of the Flood Center, will continue to build on these efforts, and we will continue to hold our elected leaders accountable for implementing necessary changes. 

Investments in the Whole Child

The 2021 Leandro Action Plan also emphasizes the need to focus investments on the whole child, by “providing funding [for] positional funding that increases the number of School Instructional Support Personnel, or SISP (school counselors, nurses, social workers, and psychologists) to begin to meet national guidelines, initially prioritizing high-poverty schools.” To ensure that the physical, social, and emotional needs of our state’s most vulnerable students are met so that they can be successful in the classroom, this step in the action plan is vital. Through the Forum’s intensive programs to help districts and schools build trauma-informed school communities (NC Resilience and Learning Project) and to help support high quality afterschool and expanded learning programs accessible to all North Carolina children and youth (NC Center for Afterschool Programming), we have seen firsthand the need for strong investments in student instructional support personnel — who support students both in and outside of school — in order to achieve strong educational outcomes for all students.

Leandro and Equity

Through the key areas addressed in the Leandro Action Plan, the parties have laid the groundwork for improving equity and student outcomes in our schools. As our team prepares to launch the Flood Center, we see the opportunity and responsibility for North Carolina education leaders to act expediently to take the first step in committing to the implementation of the state’s Action Plan to meet the needs of all students, especially those who have been the most marginalized.

WestEd’s independent, non-partisan research that identified the key areas of focus for the 2021 Leandro Action Plan made clear what many educators, parents, researchers, and state leaders have been saying for years: the state is not providing the resources or public policies required to meet the fundamental needs of all of our students, to the detriment of our children and the future well-being of our state as a whole. The time is now to demonstrate the state’s commitment to fulfill our constitutional duty to provide each child a sound basic education.

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