The state Constitution’s promise of sound basic education isn’t taken lightly in eastern North Carolina.
Parents in the mostly rural, economically depressed region understand that for poor children, a high-quality education is the surest path to life above the poverty line.
Patricia Beier, executive director of Wayne Action Group for Economic Solvency, is supporting House Bill 946. Democrats filed the bill earlier this month to steer the state toward its constitutional obligation to provide children in the state with access to sound, basic education.
“These issues [poverty and inadequate school funding] aren’t unique to eastern North Carolina, but they tend to be more profound,” Beier said in an interview with Policy Watch. “We tend to have more rural communities, lower-resourced communities and higher poverty.”
HB 946 directs state lawmakers to follow the recommendations in the “Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan” submitted to Superior Court Judge Lee in March by parties in the state’s landmark school funding case, Leandro v. State of North Carolina.
The Leandro case began more than a quarter-century ago, after five rural school districts in low-wealth counties sued the state, arguing they couldn’t raise the tax revenue needed to provide students with a quality education. In 1997, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling, later reconfirmed in 2004, in which it held that every child has a right to a “sound basic education” that includes competent and well-trained teachers and principals and equitable access to resources.
The “Comprehensive Plan” would cost $5.6 billion over eight years. It originated from, and mirrors the work of a task force appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper and a report by WestEd. WestEd is an education consultant directed by Judge David Lee, who oversees the Leandro case, to examine the state’s public schools and to make recommendations to meet the mandates in the Leandro case.
Sponsored by Rep. Julie von Haefen, a Wake County Democrat, HB 946 focuses on recommendations in the first two years of the Comprehensive Plan. “The landmark Leandro ruling reaffirmed North Carolina’s constitutional duty to ensure all children have the opportunity to a sound basic education,” von Haefen said during a press conference Monday. “The ruling requires North Carolina to identify specific resources needed to ensure all children, especially those from rural and underserved communities, and those students identified at at–risk (of academic failure) have access to the same educational opportunities as everyone else.
When the state inadequately funds schools, as Democrats contend has been the case under Republican leadership in the past decade, low-wealth, rural counties without large tax bases disproportionately suffer. They otherwise don’t have the local funding to meet the educational needs of the children.
“Counties are often expected to fill in funding gaps when our schools have unmet financial needs,” said Rep. Raymond Smith, a Wayne County Democrat. “Not only is that expectation inequitable, but it is also unconstitutional.
Smith added: “HB 946 would spur our state to take action and begin to resolve the statewide funding inequities that predominantly harm rural, low-income, and high-risk students.”
In 2018, UNC law professor Gene Nichol and researcher Heather Hunt released a report titled “Goldsboro: Isolation and Marginalization in Eastern North Carolina” that highlighted statistically how poverty ravages the community. Nichol told Goldsboro residents attending a community conversation about poverty that the city is “uniquely gripped by poverty.”
Recent Census data show that 18.6% people in Wayne County, where Goldsboro is the county seat, live below the poverty line.
The Comprehensive Plan in HB 946 identifies actions the state can take to ensure all students have access to a quality education that will deliver them from seemingly intractable poverty that robs too many children and families of economic and educational opportunities.
The bill has the support of the NC Teachers Association.
“We all know that public schools are the cornerstones of our communities. And while the WestEd report sketched out a rough outline for our public schools, we needed a detailed roadmap to start the journey,” NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly said in a statement. “House Bill 946 provides exactly that: the actionable and detailed direction our legislators need to bring North Carolina public schools up to the standards our students deserve.”
HB 946 now sits in the House Rules committee, where its supporters acknowledged unpopular bills filed by the minority party often go to die.
“I sincerely hope the Senate and House majority leaders will take the court order seriously by considering the provisions of our bill during budget negotiations,” von Haefen said.
A spokesperson for House Speaker Tim Moore did not respond to an email message asking for comment about HB 946. Moore did tell The News & Observer this week that “some of the policy suggestions in the report are worth considering.”
The state’s Republican leadership has vigorously pushed back against charges that education spending has declined under GOP rule the last 10 years. Moore told area media that he expects funding for K-12 education will continue to increase.
Rep. Rachel Hunt, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, said the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the inequities that are the focus of the Leandro case, particularly for students from low-income families, students with disabilities and English language Learners.
“If we truly want to serve our most marginalized students and prepare them for a more prosperous future, we don’t have any time to waste,” Hunt said.