Earlier this week, Judge David Lee convened a status conference with the plaintiffs and defendants from the ongoing Leandro v. State of North Carolina lawsuit. The case focuses on the state’s constitutional duty to provide “an opportunity for a sound basic education” to all public school students regardless of their circumstances. While the case was filed in 1994 and the N.C. Supreme Court issued its initial ruling in 1997, Leandro remains in the Superior Court of Wake County to allow the courts to monitor the state’s compliance. In 2016, retired Superior Court Judge David Lee was appointed to oversee the case after the retirement of Judge Howard Manning.

During Tuesday’s status conference, Lee issued a 34-page order affirming the findings of the report authored by California-based consulting firm WestEd. In 2017, the plaintiffs and defendants agreed to allow an independent consultant to advise Lee on how to proceed. They selected WestEd to recommend an action plan. WestEd delivered its report to the judge last July, and the contents of the report were released Dec. 10.

Lee’s order also reviewed previous Leandro rulings and established a timeline for next steps. Lee announced a March 30 deadline for proposed consent orders “regarding the definite plan of action and its critical components, including the identification of specific concrete, definitive actions — preliminary short-term actions and mid-term and long-term action plans — that will be taken to implement” WestEd recommendations. If it necessitates a hearing, then it will be held sometime in the week of April 13.  That is about two weeks before the start of the General Assembly’s “short” legislative session.

One of the more troubling aspects of Leandro is that representatives from the General Assembly are not represented in the courtroom and do not participate formally in the proceedings. The legislature supports public education through its constitutionally defined authority over the state budget process.  As such, the General Assembly should be an active participant in the process rather than a passive observer of the machinations of the school district plaintiffs and the N.C. Attorney General’s Office/State Board of Education defendants.

To his credit, Lee hopes to “obtain the support necessary from the General Assembly and other public institutions” going forward. But lawmakers’ willingness to collaborate will depend on the nature of the consent orders issued in April. If Lee signs off on consent orders designed to strongarm lawmakers into following a specific fiscal, regulatory, and programmatic agenda, then legislative leaders may balk at the court’s actions. That’s why he should counsel the plaintiffs and defendants to demonstrate restraint and prudence in their draft orders. As my colleague Mitch Kokai points out, the appropriate role for the WestEd report and associated court orders would be to guide lawmakers when they begin revising the state budget in April.

Unfortunately, Lee failed to exercise reasonable caution in his uncritical acceptance of the WestEd report. It’s not enough that the plaintiffs and defendants are satisfied with the report findings and recommendations. If fully adopted, WestEd recommendations would require the state to spend an additional $8 billion in taxpayer money over the next eight years, so their fondness for the report is no mystery.

Nevertheless, WestEd produced a flawed study that precluded research-based policy options available to lawmakers and state education officials. It also fails to address ways to use existing resources in more productive ways. Simply pouring money into a system that may be misallocating resources does not address the underlying structural deficiencies in the system itself. 

Moreover, WestEd recommendations such as eliminating local funding for charter schools are based on complaints from public school officials, rather than research and best practices. WestEd researchers chose to focus on a short timeframe for data trends and comparisons, rather than assess inputs and outcomes since the start of the lawsuit in 1994. And don’t get me started on their failure to make demographic and cost-of-living adjustments when comparing North Carolina to other states.

In the interest of inclusiveness, Lee should have been willing to consider these and other critiques of the report and alternative points of view. Why not engage with all stakeholders about ways to raise student achievement in low-income schools? Why not ask independent researchers and policymakers to evaluate the WestEd report? Allowing a single report to dictate North Carolina’s public education policy agenda is unwise.

Dr. Terry Stoops is vice president for research and director of Education Studies at the John Locke Foundation.