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A court-appointed consultant found that many students in the state don’t receive a “sound basic education.”

Not all students in North Carolina have access to the quality education promised to them in the state constitution, according to a new report.

The findings come from WestEd, a California-based education nonprofit appointed to conduct an independent review of the state’s education system as part of a 1997 state Supreme Court case.

“Two decades have passed since the Leandro decision guaranteed the right of all North Carolina students to a sound basic education, during which the situation in the state’s most disadvantaged schools first improved, then worsened once again,” the report’s authors write. “Children of North Carolina deserve better.”

In the 1990s, families and school districts in rural counties sued the state, alleging their students were being denied the right to an adequate education. The North Carolina Supreme Court agreed. Since then, according to the judge now overseeing the case, the state has repeatedly failed to comply with the ruling in Leandro v. the State of North Carolina, impacting “hundreds of thousands of North Carolina children.”

WestEd, along with Learning Policy Institute and the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at North Carolina State University, were tasked with developing an action plan to get the state in compliance. Their report—informally known as the Leandro report—was released to the public last week.

The 300-page report found that the state has struggled to improve the proficiency rates of students in core curriculum areas and has failed to help students become college and career ready. 

Those living in poorer areas have been impacted the most by these failures.

High-poverty schools have far more beginning teachers and far fewer National Board-certified teachers than low-poverty schools, the report found. Teachers who aren’t adequately prepared are more likely to leave the profession, and “more of these teachers are hired into high-poverty schools, which most need a stable, experienced workforce,” the authors write.

Schools in less wealthy districts also often receive less local funding than their wealthier counterparts. To highlight this disparity, the report looked at two nearby school districts with similar enrollment: Asheville City Schools and Jackson County Public Schools.

Asheville City Schools, where 37 percent of students are eligible for free lunch, receives $5,676 in local funding per pupil. In comparison, Jackson County Public Schools, where 57 percent of students are eligible for free lunch, receives only $2,292 in local funding per pupil.

In short: Asheville City Schools receives nearly 2.5 times more money than Jackson County Public Schools. That’s the exact sort of glaring inequity that the Leandro ruling was supposed to eradicate.

“North Carolina’s current education system fails to meet the educational needs of many of its children and thereby fails to provide for the future success of these individuals, their communities, and the state,” the report states.

To address these issues, the authors offer eight key recommendations, including an overhaul of the state’s funding model, a focus on providing “qualified” and “well-prepared” teachers and principals in every school, and increased support for at-risk and economically disadvantaged students and high-poverty schools.

There are multiple paths for how the state can achieve these goals and come into compliance, the authors point out. These proposals, however, could cost as much as $6.8 billion over eight years. The decision of whether to fund the recommended proposals lies in the hands of state lawmakers, some of whom may be hesitant to embrace such a large increase in funding.

“Children of North Carolina deserve better.”

Pat Ryan, a spokesman for state Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham), told the Associated Press that more funding doesn’t necessarily lead to student success.

Despite the belief that “money doesn’t buy outcomes,” Ryan said that properly funding the state’s education system is a priority for both parties and pointed out that the legislature has already increased K-12 funding by almost $10 billion in the past eight years.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper also released a statement, calling on the state to create a “specific plan to get the job done.” He also underscored the urgency of addressing the gaps identified by the report. 

“If North Carolina is to remain economically competitive, then every child in our state must receive a high-quality education as promised in our state constitution,” Cooper said. “Your zip-code shouldn’t determine your future, and this groundbreaking report shows that we need to make significant investments in our public schools, strengthen our teacher and principal pipelines, and greatly expand early childhood learning opportunities for our most at-risk students.”

The state’s failures have been particularly acute for at-risk students, defined as those who come from low-income families, participate in free or reduced-cost lunch programs, have parents with a low-level education, show limited proficiency in English, are a member of a racial or ethnic minority group, or live in a single-parent household.

The long-term consequences of the state’s failure to properly educate these at-risk students are stark. Only about one-third of children born into North Carolina families making less than $25,000 annually are able to climb into middle and upper income level as adults, according to a 2018 report from MDC, a Durham-based nonprofit.

Students in Charlotte, Raleigh, Fayetteville, and Greensboro face particular challenges in improving their station in life. All four regions rank in the bottom 10 of the nation’s 100 largest “commuting zones” when it comes to upward mobility.

Underscoring just how serious North Carolina’s education struggles are, the WestEd report concluded that the state is actually further away from meeting its obligations than it was 20 years ago.

Yet, things weren’t always this way. 

North Carolina entered the 1990s near the bottom of state educational rankings, but made steady progress through the decade. The state posted the largest student achievement gains of any state in mathematics during the 1990s and also made progress in reading, becoming the first Southern state to score above the national average in fourth grade reading in math. The state also substantially reduced the minority-white achievement gap during the same period. 

During the 2008 recession, however, state lawmakers made cuts to the state’s education budget, beginning the downward trend of North Carolina’s education system. These cuts—which grew after Republicans gained hold of the state legislature in 2010 and the governor’s mansion in 2012—eliminated many of the programs that led to the gains of the ’90s and early 2000s. 

As a result, since 2013, the state has seen its mathematics and reading scores decline and racial achievement gaps have widened.

Teachers have also suffered from the state’s shrinking education budget. The total number of teachers employed in North Carolina decreased by 5 percent from 2009 to 2018, a period in which student enrollment increased by 12 percent. Consequently, the state now suffers from a severe teacher shortage.

Importantly, the state’s education funding has not kept pace with this growth and remains below pre-recession levels. As of fiscal year 2017, the most recent year for which national rankings are available, North Carolina’s per-pupil spending was the sixth lowest in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. When adjusted to 2018 dollars, per-pupil spending in North Carolina has declined by about 6 percent since the 2009-10 school year. 

The various reform proposals put forth in the WestEd action plan call for significant financial investments. While the price tags associated with these ideas are high, the cost of not increasing the state’s investment in education could be higher.

One cost analysis found that each new high school graduate yielded a public benefit of about $209,000 in higher government revenues and lower spending, compared with an investment of only $82,000 to help each student reach graduation. 

Complicating matters further is that the myFutureNC Commission, an educational nonprofit, released a report in February 2019 finding that North Carolina’s talent supply isn’t keeping pace with changes in the job market. The state’s blue collar workforce has decreased and been replaced by jobs that increasingly require technical skills and college degrees, the report said.

The commission found that 67 percent of jobs in North Carolina already require a “high-quality” postsecondary degree or credential, but less than half (49 percent) of North Carolinians ages 25-44 have completed that level of education.

Unless there are systemic improvements to all levels of the state’s education system, the state is expected to have a 400,000 worker shortfall for these jobs by 2030.