In late 2000, Democratic Gov. Mike Easley and the Democratic majority in the N.C. General Assembly fretted while Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning wrote the third section of a memorandum of decision in Leandro v. State of North Carolina.
Leandro is a 1994 lawsuit that focused on the state’s constitutional duty to provide a “sound basic education” to all public school students. While the N.C. Supreme Court decided the case in 1997, the case had been remanded to the Superior Court of Wake County and assigned to Manning to monitor the state’s compliance with the ruling.
According to Capitol Press Association political reporter Paul O’Connor, Easley and his fellow Democrats believed Manning could go in one of three directions. He could order the General Assembly to increase public school funding, order the state to revise the distribution and use of state funds for schools, or issue an order that included a combination of the two. O’Connor wrote that an order requiring the General Assembly to spend more money “would likely force the state to appeal, a course that neither Easley nor legislative leaders want to take. They recognize there is a problem, but they can’t make money appear magically.”
Manning published his third report in March 2001, and much to the relief of the Democrats at the time, he opted for the second option. He ordered the state to “conduct self-examinations of the present allocation of resources and to produce a rationale, comprehensive plan which strategically focuses available resources and funds towards meeting the needs of all children.”
Manning concluded, “Throwing money, either local or state, at the problem without strategic and effective planning accompanied by accountability for results will not be acceptable.” This outlook was reinforced in the fourth and final section, a 112-page document released in April 2002. Despite his earlier apprehension, Easley would later use Leandro to justify budget proposals that featured significant increases in education spending.
Manning retired in 2015, and Judge David Lee was appointed to take his place. In 2017, the plaintiffs and defendants agreed to allow an independent consultant to advise Lee on how to proceed. They selected California-based consulting firm WestEd to recommend an action plan. The firm delivered its report to Lee in June, but its contents haven’t been made public, as of late November.
Many speculate the WestEd report will conclude that the state’s current effort is unsatisfactory, allowing the parties in the case to prioritize state funding levels above all other matters, including Manning’s laudable focus on “strategic and effective planning accompanied by accountability for results.”
Gov. Roy Cooper and Democratic colleagues hope the WestEd report motivates Lee to order the Republican-led General Assembly to throw money at the problem, despite the separation of powers between the judicial and legislative branches. Undoubtedly, such an order would necessitate rescinding the tax cuts passed by Republicans over the past eight years. If Democrats regain the majority in 2020, it will give them cover to raise as many taxes as they deem necessary.
The state funding targets that likely will be outlined in the WestEd report are anybody’s guess. Given that researchers have yet to find a level or type of spending that ensures that all children attain academic proficiency, the WestEd analysis will and should invite skepticism. Last year, state funds accounted for two-thirds of the nearly $14 billion public education budget. Schools spent an average of $6,479 in state money per district school student and $6,310 in state money per charter school student. (Federal and local funds added another $3,386 and $3,088, respectively.)
Before we commit to millions more, are we confident existing expenditures are used in productive ways, that is, focused on classrooms? This is primarily a human resources question. According to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, about 94 percent of state funds are used to pay salaries and benefits.
Pouring money into school personnel may not do much good if student performance is tied inexorably to students’ socioeconomic status and family environment, as many public school educators and public school advocates contend. A number of charter schools that serve low-income children suggest schools can overcome some of these external barriers to achievement, but they are able to do so, in part, because they are not constrained by state regulations, district bureaucracies, and persistent groupthink.
In the end, perhaps regulatory freedom and educational choice are better answers to closing achievement gaps than compelling the legislature to throw money at a problem that has no obvious resolution.
Dr. Terry Stoops is vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation.