For over two decades, North Carolina has systematically violated the constitutional rights of its children by failing to ensure the universal opportunity to a sound basic education enshrined in the now-famous state Supreme Court ruling in Leandro v. State.
On Tuesday, a non-partisan expert report  was released identifying the state’s current education shortcomings and policy solutions, presenting a once-in-a-generation opportunity for all of us – students, teachers, parents, advocates, and policymakers – to do right by kids in North Carolina. Together, let’s take it.
Since the North Carolina Supreme Court declared the constitutional right of all children to a “sound basic education” in 1997, the Leandro case and ruling have been hot-potatoed between various courts, legislative sessions, and governors, resulting in little real progress in education funding and outcomes. In response to this inaction, the independent consulting group WestEd was hired in 2017 to collect data and make policy and funding recommendations to the Leandro parties and the court.
In June 2019, WestEd submitted its report to presiding Judge David Lee. Lee ordered that the report be kept confidential for the parties to review privately and respond accordingly. After months of expectancy and rumors, the report was made public on Tuesday .
Entitled “Sound Basic Education for All: An Action Plan for North Carolina,”  the report explains that despite near-unanimous agreement that “the future prosperity and well-being of the state’s citizens requires successfully educating all of its children…North Carolina’s current education system fails to meet the education needs of many of its children and thereby fails to provide for the future success of these individuals, their communities, and the state.”
In fact, the report found that “the state is further away from meeting its constitutional obligation to provide every child with the opportunity for a sound basic education [today] than it was when the Supreme Court of North Carolina issued the Leandro decision more than 20 years ago.” Accordingly, the report provided eight “critical needs” for the state to address in order “to ensure that every child receives a sound basic education:”
- Revising the state funding model to provide adequate, efficient, and equitable resources;
- Providing a qualified, well-prepared, and diverse teaching staff in every school;
- Providing a qualified and well-prepared principal in every school;
- Providing all at-risk students with the opportunity to attend high-quality early childhood programs;
- Directing resources, opportunities, and initiatives to economically disadvantaged students;
- Revising the student assessment system and school accountability system;
- Building an effective regional and statewide system of support for the improvement of low-performing and high-poverty schools; and
- Convening an expert panel to assist the Court in monitoring state policies, plans, programs, and progress.
Amidst the frenzied aftermath of the report’s publication, one thing is abundantly clear: it is vitally important for the future of North Carolina public education for all stakeholders – students, parents, teachers, administrators, community members, and, most importantly, policymakers – to quickly and zealously act on the report’s findings. Here’s why.
“To be clear, the state’s inaction here is not mere bad policy or bad politics – it’s literally unconstitutional.”
Legally speaking, enacting the report’s policy and funding recommendations is the only clear way for the state to halt its ongoing violation of the constitutional rights of students in low-wealth and high-need school districts. To be clear, the state’s inaction here is not mere bad policy or bad politics – it’s literally unconstitutional. If the state is to stop the bleeding, it must immediately begin working toward enacting the report’s recommendations.
Practically speaking, enacting these recommendations is the most surefire way to ensure that all North Carolina students actually receive a sound basic education. Since state funding constitutes about two-thirds of all school funding in North Carolina, state-level policies have the most salient impact.
Although these reforms will have the largest positive effect on the children who have borne the brunt of the state’s historic shortcomings (students of color, English-language learners, Exceptional Children, and students in low-wealth and high-need school districts), fulfilling the promise of a sound basic education will benefit all school districts and students across the state. Indeed, rising tides lift all ships.
Economically speaking, enacting the report’s recommendations will ensure a healthier, wealthier, and wiser North Carolina for generations to come. As education quality improves, particularly for students to whom it has been historically denied, more North Carolinians will be equipped with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in post-secondary education, the workforce, and beyond. A sound basic education can serve as a foundational remedy for many of North Carolina’s most problematic ills: It’s an economy-booster, an incarceration-reducer, a poverty-buster, and a community-builder.
Beyond any issue of law, policy, or economics, though, ensuring that all children in our state receive a sound basic education is simply the right and moral thing to do. It takes exactly zero J.D.s, M.P.P.s, or Ph.Ds to understand that when all kids are given an equitable shot, we’re all better off for it. So when zip codes define opportunity and poverty predicts outcomes, inaction is not just passé politics, it’s active oppression.
All North Carolinians have a role to play in advocating zealously for the enactment of Leandro reforms. Reading and sharing the report will be a great place to start. Communicating with local school and district administrators will begin the upward pressure towards progress. Contacting General Assembly members will remind them of the urgent importance of doing their job: ensuring that kids across our state have the opportunity to receive a constitutionally adequate education. If they don’t, November 2020 will bring an excellent opportunity to express our frustrations.
If the past twenty-two years have taught us anything about a sound basic education in North Carolina, it’s that many feet will have to be held to fires if we’re ever to get it. Tuesday’s publication of the WestEd report presents an exceedingly rare opportunity to make the education progress that North Carolina children are constitutionally entitled to, and that our state desperately needs. Let’s get to work.
Zack Kaplan is a second-year student at Duke Law School studying the intersection of education, racial equity, and law. He is a former 5th grade teacher and current board member at Maureen Joy Charter School in east Durham.