Chatham education advocates say Leandro funding is necessary to improve schools

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The North Carolina General Assembly unveiled its proposed state budget last week, which includes funding for teacher pay raises and an increase in funding for public schools.

Education advocates say, however, the funding doesn’t go nearly far enough because it still falls well short of the Leandro plan.

Every Child NC, a group which advocates for the multi-year Leandro plan — a court-mandated set of funding and policy recommendations to give all students access to “sound, basic” schools promised by the state constitution — said this budget only funds about half of what is called for in the plan for the fiscal year. At a press conference outside the Legislative Building in Raleigh last week, the group said the proposed budget misses the mark by $443 million.

Local education advocates in Chatham County agree with the concerns raised by Every Child NC about the need to fund Leandro as soon as possible. They say the continued failure to fund the Leandro plan puts unnecessary pressure on Chatham politicians to fill the gaps left by the state.

The Leandro plan deals with a lawsuit initially filed in 1994 by five low-income school districts to get additional state funding. In the original case, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled the state constitution guarantees every child “an opportunity to receive a sound, basic education,” and the state was failing to meet that obligation.

“Chatham will continue to have a choice in how we respond to North Carolina’s unwillingness to fund our schools at their mandated level,” said Jaime Detzi, executive director of Chatham Education Foundation. “We can continue to supplement the funds the state gives Chatham and add the additional personnel and resources required to meet our student needs or — and this is what we fear — is that at some point, the Chatham tax base will not be able to keep up with supplemental school funding and our students, teachers and residents will suffer the consequences, even more than we are seeing today.”

What is Leandro?

In 2020, Superior Court Judge David Lee adopted a multi-year plan from California-based WestEd ­— an education consulting firm aimed at improving school equity. The plan from WestEd is designed to provide every student with access to high-quality teachers and principals.

The plan includes expansion of Pre-K, more money for lower-income districts and higher pay for educators. In November, Lee ordered the state to transfer $1.75 billion to fund the next two years of the Leandro plan, as written by WestEd.

Later, a N.C. Court of Appeals panel blocked the order from being enforced because it found the court could not mandate spending. Superior Court Judge Michael Robinson, a registered Republican, was later named to replace Lee, a registered Democrat, after the panel ruling.

Robinson stepped back Lee’s ruling slightly last year by ruling last year’s state budget left the plan $785 million short of being fully funded. Robinson also removed Lee’s requirement that the state treasurer, state controller and state budget director transfer the money to fund the plan.

The next step in the case is the state Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on the case on August 29, including whether the courts can order the additional funding.

‘Disheartened’ by state budget

While Chatham County is not designated as one of the low-income districts to receive additional support, that doesn’t mean funding from the Leandro plan wouldn’t help the district.

According to EveryChild NC, Chatham County Schools would gain an additional $18.7 million over three years. The advocacy organization has a calculator to examine the impact the additional funding could have on each district. For CCS, it would mean 46 more teacher assistants, five community school coordinators, 62 more nurses, psychologists, counselors and social workers, 140% more in textbooks, supplies and instructional materials and $1,286/teacher for professional development.

Overall, the funding from Leandro would represent a 32% increase in annual funding to CCS from the state.

CEF’s Detzi said the impact of the plan is clear, but the state is running out of time to make the necessary changes.

“Unless N.C. makes a quick and enormous investment in teacher pay, support personnel pay and increases the number of students entering N.C. colleges for the teaching profession, these funds will be worthless to districts,” Detzi said. “N.C. will have lost too many educators to other surrounding states and other professions that pay more for bachelor-level positions.”

According to the 2022 Teacher Working Conditions Survey, about 7.2% of teachers, librarians, school counselors, social workers and psychologists said their immediate plan was to quit education altogether, up from about 4% in 2020 and in 2018.

In Chatham County, 7.4% of the more than 750 educators who responded to the survey said they are considering leaving education. That’s part of why Detzi said it’s so important for the state to act and fund this plan.

“By continuing to decrease the importance of the role public education plays in the N.C. economy and society at large, the state will continue to lose teachers to surrounding states and families to states where public education is higher funded and of higher importance to the legislature,” Detzi said. “The Chatham Education Foundation is disheartened that the state of N.C. refuses to fully fund the court-mandated Leandro plan and continues to underfund and undermine the public schools system in N.C. This year, the state has underfunded the Leandro plan by $443 million on top of last year’s $200 million.”

Beyond the numbers, Mary Kolek, the chairperson of CEF’s board of directors, said she believes the new budget is troubling because it doesn’t move the needle forward on any one particular issue.

“If your entire house infrastructure is old, outdated and has been neglected or patch-worked, it is unwise to keep ordering cases of duct tape,” Kolek said. “Especially if you have more than enough in the coffers to make all the updates needed, as does N.C.”

The coffers Kolek is referring to are the estimated $6 billion in cash reserves the state has on hand. She said the new budget underfunds education while placing increased emphasis and eligibility on voucher programs for private schools. 

Also referred to as “opportunity scholarships,” school vouchers are taxpayer-funded dollars paid directly to private and religious schools for tuition. 

If the proposed budget becomes law, funding for the voucher program would grow from $120.54 million to $176.54 million for the 2023-2024 school year, and eventually reach $311.54 million per year.

Detzi said underfunding also puts more pressure on local legislators to fill in the gaps. While state accounts for most of the funding to public schools, anything not provided by the state is up to the Chatham County Board of Commissioners.

‘Do more if they have more’

The new Chatham County Fiscal Year 2022-2023 budget allocates $56.9 million to Chatham County Schools including $105,000 to support the opening of the new Central Services building and Chatham Reads literacy program and $820,000 to implement a new hybrid model for the teacher supplements.

Detzi and other CEF members said the commissioners do a good job funding and prioritizing education, but there’s only so much they can do.

One person who understands both sides of the need for Leandro is Commissioner Robert Logan. Prior to joining the board, he served as North Carolina Assistant Superintendent for the Department of Public Instruction, the superintendent in two other districts (including Chatham) and an educator in eight different districts in North Carolina over his career. Logan has also testified to multiple state Supreme Court committees about the importance of funding Leandro.

He said seeing the case from a political, and not an administrative, viewpoint proves, in his mind, the need for additional state funding.

“There is a direct correlation between the amount of funding or the amount of resources that a school district has, that children receive, to the quality of education that those children receive,” Logan said. “A ZIP code should never determine the future of a child and their educational experience.”

He said CCS does better than average in funding public education, but that’s because it generates higher than average tax revenues. Last month, the commissioners affirmed their dedication to funding public education by signing a resolution from EveryChild NC urging the General Assembly to fund Leandro.

Later in June, Karen Howard, the chairperson of the Chatham Commissioners, reaffirmed the board’s commitment to the cause by signing an amicus brief from the North Carolina Early Education Coalition.

“Leandro is an opportunity for our state to advance equity, change systems, and deliver on the promise of an opportunity for every child to fulfill their potential,” the brief said. “This is an investment that we can’t afford not to make. We stand in support of the court’s order to fulfill the obligation to provide every child with a sound, basic education beginning in early childhood.”

Logan said local tax revenues end up being the main determinant of how much locales are able to fund their respective school districts. He said he believes this ends up inhibiting access to a “sound, basic education.”

“Chatham is fortunate in what it is able to do,” Logan said. “But all school districts can use more, all school districts can do more if they have more.”

Correction: The original version of the story misrepresented remarks from Dr. Mary Kolek. She said voucher programs for private schools increased in the recent budget, not charter schools. The story has been updated to reflect this information along with additional context about private school vouchers in the proposed state budget. The News + Record apologizes for this error.

Reporter Ben Rappaport can be reached at brappaport@chathamnr.com or on Twitter @b_rappaport.

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