The landmark decision in the Leandro case spelled out what North Carolina must do to ensure every student has access to a sound, basic education. But figuring out how to accomplish the requirement is proving a challenge.

Leandro dictates that every classroom must be staffed with a competent, well-trained teacher, and every school must be staffed with a competent, well-trained principal. Add to that a requirement to identify the resources needed to ensure all children, even at-risk students, have an equal opportunity to a sound, basic education.

Gov. Roy Cooper established the Commission on Access to a Sound Basic Education on July 21, 2017, to address challenges posed by the Leandro case.

The focus of the commission meetings are manyfold, but the primary focus of the Feb. 20 meeting was school finance.

As the needs of students increase so do the demands on local school districts and educational staff to meet those needs. The question is whether more funding is needed or if increased funding flexibility is the solution.

Commission member Henrietta Zalkind, executive director of Down East Partnership For Children, a nonprofit education organization, questioned how increased flexibility would help if there isn’t enough money to start.

“If you don’t start out with how much you need to begin with and what other states at the top of the chart are spending per child, then we are just trying to divvy up a pot that’s not adequate enough to begin with,” Zalkind said.

Zalkind said the state shouldn’t cut the education budget but should instead increase it.

Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, is skeptical of the commission’s agenda and argued members should look beyond advocating for more funding.

“There is little doubt that the commission will conclude that public schools are ‘underfunded,’” Stoops said. “The only real unknown at this point is the selection of the arbitrary funding standard they will use to make that determination.”

The state, at 62.7 percent, provides most of the total funding for public school operations, compared to 26 percent of funding from local government and 11.3 percent from the federal government. In 2017-18, the state allocated $9.7 billion, while $1.4 billion in funding came from the federal government and $4 billion from local government.

Keith Poston, president and executive director of Public School Forum of North Carolina, said disparities in local county funding is a big problem. The gap in county level spending per student among wealthy and poor counties continues to grow.

Poston pointed to the 2018 Local School Finance Study, which showed the wealthiest counties have more than five times the taxable property wealth per child available than the 10 poorest counties.

“As a result, even though the 10 poorest counties tax themselves at double the rate of the wealthiest counties, the revenue they generate through taxation is substantially lower,” Poston said.

Orange County spends $4,852 per student compared to Clay, Columbus, Greene, Graham, Hoke, Robeson, and Swain County, which spend $4,663 combined.

Commissioners also raised questions about the meaning of equity and how can it be achieved. Karen Hawley Miles, CEO and president of Education Resource Strategies, suggested equity isn’t about equal funding between high and low wealth districts. Equity is also about ensuring low-wealth districts are getting all the help they need.

Commission member Fouad Abd-El-Khalick, a professor and the dean of the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, shared a similar sentiment.

“We need to realize that the research shows equity is not achieved by having everyone have the same level of funding,” Abd-El-Khalick said. “We need to move beyond that and start thinking the equitable thing to do is direct more resources to challenged communities.”

Miles also said school finance isn’t just about how much funding is available but also about how the funds are used.

Stoops agreed.

“Rather than focusing on funding, the commission should examine how districts spend the millions of dollars they receive from taxpayers,” Stoops said. “Most researchers agree that how money is spent is more important than how much is spent.”

Superintendents Anthony Jackson, Vance County Schools; Tim Markley, New Hanover County Schools; and Janet Mason, Rutherford County Schools, shared their thoughts on school finances at the district level.

The superintendents said they had more flexibility eight years ago than they do today.  

Jackson said it’s time to stop focusing on the flavor of the day and to start working on long-term strategies such as greater funding flexibility and fewer unfunded mandates.

Cooper stopped by to share his thoughts on the commission’s work.

“There are a lot of eyes on this commission, including the courts,” Cooper said. “You’re talking about a difficult subject today. How do we pay for [education]? How are we going to finance making sure our schools keep up?”

Cooper said decisions must be made to prepare for the future job market and ensuring North Carolina students can compete.

“We are at a critical point in the history of our state. Which way are we going to go? Are we going to jettison public education and let it go and not let it be a priority?” Cooper asked. “Got to continue to talk about it, but show me your budget. You can say it’s a priority, but show me your budget.”

“So far, the commission appears to be little more than an echo chamber for those who are dissatisfied with the reforms advanced by the Republican legislative majority,” Stoops said.

The commission will meet again April 10.