North Carolina should make it easier for public school teachers to grow professionally, and for principals to spend money and direct personnel as they see fit, a pivotal new education report says

Unfortunately, media chatter about inadequate school funding is overshadowing these important recommendations, an expert says. 

On Tuesday, Dec. 10, a 300-page report from research nonprofit WestEd was released to the public. The dense document is a key piece in the decades-old Leandro case. In 1994, five rural school districts sued the state over education funding. Wealthy districts collected enough taxes to provide strong public schools, but rural districts suffered, plaintiffs argued. In 1997, the N.C. Supreme Court agreed, saying every North Carolina child has a right to “a sound, basic education.” In 2004, the court said the state had failed to live up to that decision.

The parties in the lawsuit hired WestEd to make recommendations to Superior Court Judge David Lee, who’s presiding over Leandro. Now that the report is out, a court decision looms. It’s anyone’s guess what Lee will do, said Terry Stoops, director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation. But while some fixate on the report’s recommendation the state spend an extra $8 billion over the next eight years, the report includes some good ideas that could have more lasting effects, Stoops said. 

The state should expand how it compensates teachers, the report says, by beefing up an advancement pilot program — created in 2016 — that allows teachers to earn more without being forced into administrative jobs. North Carolina’s Advanced Teaching Roles Initiative was implemented in 2017 and is overseen by the State Board of Education and the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. School districts must apply to join the pilot program. Participants include Bertie, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Chapel Hill-Carbarro, Edgecombe, Halifax, Hertford, Lexington City, Pitt, Vance, and Washington school districts. Interest in the program is growing, says a February report from education nonprofit Best N.C. 

The N.C. General Assembly and the governor are responsible for that program. 

School principals should also be given more autonomy to make decisions about money and personnel, the WestEd report states. It’s a common sense recommendation, Stoops said, because those closest to students are best equipped to make decisions about their needs. 

“Giving principals more autonomy doesn’t require more money,” he said. My worry is that the good parts of the report will be overshadowed by the funding recommendation.” 

Roughly 94% of the state’s $8.6 billion education budget is already spent on salaries and benefits, Stoops said. Some may see dollar signs as a solution, but extra money does nothing to address structural problems in the workforce. 

The legislature would be wise to examine all portions of WestEd’s research — not simply fixating on the funding question, he said. 

“Republican lawmakers, in particular, may be surprised to find that some of the WestEd recommendations that are consistent with their education reform agenda. A number of other recommendations may be incorporated into existing efforts easily.”

Click here to read more about Leandro.