In 1994, the year Kathleen Leandro sued the state on behalf of her eighth-grade son, Robb, legislators gave $4.1 billion to public schools. It sounds like a lot, but in reality it was almost $500 million less than funding over the previous year. Today, the situation is much worse.
In the past five decades, the share of money given to public schools in annual state budgets has dropped by 13 percent. Despite criticism from teachers, parents, and even some students, legislators have continued walking down a path they started down years earlier—a path toward defunding public education.
The Leandro case started out as an effort to improve education for students in poor school districts, but over the years, the focus has shifted to the quality of education as a whole. It raises questions that school systems and parents across the country are grappling with, such as “Do we have enough teachers?” and “Is my child getting enough attention at school?”
Like many pillars of politics, these issues all boil down to money. And since 90 percent of the state’s public education money goes to staff salaries and benefits, teacher pay has come under the spotlight.
For teachers, it’s analogous to working for a company that lays off half its staff, then decides they weren’t needed anyway. The 2008 recession hit a lot of companies hard, forcing them to cut costs. But even after the recession passed, many stuck with a limited staff. After all, the job was still (mostly) getting done. Why pay for two teachers when one can teach math and science?
Unfortunately, teachers and support staff who are being asked to do more while being paid less are quitting. In September, Wake County reported a shortage of 274 teachers, a relatively low vacancy rate, but one that reflected an uptick in retirements and resignations. The school district also reported vacancy rates of 15 percent and more for bus drivers, child nutrition workers, instructional assistants, and maintenance and operations staff.
The loss of teachers and support staff during the coronavirus pandemic was a body blow to schools. Fewer teachers, more students, and less money for programs such as English as a Second Language all combined to put schools in a dire position.
Now, exhausted and frustrated with a lack of pay raises, bus drivers and cafeteria workers are striking in protest. On Tuesday, hundreds of cafeteria workers called in sick to protest low pay and poor working conditions. Their walkout followed a similar protest by bus drivers last month that resulted in lengthy carpool lines.
Such was the situation when, last week, superior court judge David Lee ordered the legislature to hand over $1.7 billion to public education. The money would fund the first two years of an eight-year, $5.6 billion plan to improve education for children in low-wealth districts, dubbed “the Leandro Plan.”
Under the plan, teachers would get a 5 percent pay raise in 2021–22, principals would get a pay raise, and schools could hire more teacher assistants, school nurses, school social workers, and school counselors. The state’s pre-K program would also be expanded so 75 percent of eligible children are enrolled by 2028, and money would go toward programs in poor school districts for students with disabilities, disadvantaged students, and English learners.
Lee’s court order comes after years of inaction from the state legislature, which was directed to take measures to improve public education back in 2004. A decade of litigation in the Leandro case ended that year when the state supreme court, again, ruled that the state has a constitutional obligation to provide all children with a sound, basic education.
Since then, judges have given the state multiple opportunities to comply with the ruling by increasing education funding, either through individual pieces of legislation or via the annual budget. The Republican-controlled legislature, however, has failed to develop a plan of action or make a sustained, comprehensive effort at expanding programs proven to improve public education.
Until Monday, Republican lawmakers and Governor Roy Cooper were at a stalemate when it came to the budget (and how much money should be given to schools). Even after the state Board of Education, alongside the Leandro plaintiffs, agreed on the comprehensive, eight-year plan earlier this year, legislators failed to fully fund it in their proposed budgets.
Weeks of fruitless negotiations prompted Lee to give lawmakers an October deadline to fund the Leandro plan, which they ignored, and then, earlier this week, to order state officials to transfer $1.7 billion to the Department of Public Instruction, Department of Health and Human Services, and University of North Carolina System.
“For 17 years, [this court] has granted every reasonable deference to the legislature to put together and implement a plan,” Lee said last week. “No budget has been passed … despite the significant unspent funds they have.”
Five days after Lee’s order, state leaders finally reached a compromise on the budget. And while it does give more money to public education than previous proposals, it still falls short of the Leandro plan. For example, while it would increase teacher pay in low-wealth school districts, it calls only for an average raise of 2.5 percent for teachers instead of 5 percent. The budget is expected to land on Governor Cooper’s desk by Friday.
Republicans have been vocal in their opposition to the Leandro Plan, calling Lee a “rogue judge” and expected to fight the ruling. On the other hand, state superintendent of public instruction Catherine Truitt, also a Republican, has been mostly silent on the issue. She sent a letter earlier this month urging lawmakers to pass a state budget, citing the “many crises on the horizon” should they fail to do so, but didn’t specify how much money should be allocated.
For now, Lee’s order is still standing, a ray of hope for many education advocates. After 27 years, with the Leandro case drawing to a close, perhaps Kathleen Leandro’s grandchildren will finally get the education they deserve.
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