Students have a right to a sound basic education. It is hard to argue with that. But who decides what that looks like in a 2022 action plan for today and tomorrow’s N.C. school kids?

This question will be before the N.C. Supreme Court this week as justices hear oral arguments in a case stemming from a lawsuit brought by five county school systems in 1994. Over the years, the case has become politically charged. It could end up determining who controls North Carolina’s government education system, how money is allocated for it, and what is taught to North Carolina’s children.

The architect of the plan being supported by plaintiffs has political ties to Democrats nationally. San Francisco-based consultant WestEd designed the plan in 2018 which charts a path toward spending goals, but also societal goals.

“WestEd is reimagining solutions to a more equitable society by taking on the most demanding and enduring challenges in education and human development,” the company’s site says on its mission and goals page.

WestEd’s pre-COVID proposal being fought over in the highest levels of the N.C. judiciary lays out an eight-year plan for billions of dollars in new education spending on our existing public school structure, along with new studies and reports that could generate even more expenses in the years to come.

The process leading to a contract for WestEd started in July 2017, soon after the election of Gov. Roy Cooper and N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein, both Democrats. Plaintiffs in the case and attorneys working for Stein requested that retired Union County Judge David Lee, assigned to the case in March 2016, order a proposed case management plan. He did so in February 2018. A month later, again at the urging of the two sides who jointly recommended the San Francisco-based WestEd, Lee appointed the group to write a proposal. How the two sides reached the agreement for WestEd to be paid for the proposal and plan is not clear, but in 2020, Lee ordered WestEd to develop a full plan for nearly $2 million.

In November 2021, Lee followed up with an order directing the state to transfer $1.75 billion to fund the first part of WestEd’s Leandro plan.

What is WestEd?

WestEd is a self-proclaimed nonpartisan education research agency with 900 employees and annual revenue of $174 million.

While taxpayers paid the biggest piece of that WestEd tab at $600,000 from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and $200,000 from the N.C. Department of Administration, prominent N.C. Democrat donor organizations kicked in to help foot the bill for the study as well. The Goodnight Educational Foundation gave $250,000, The Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation gave $200,000, and the A.J. Fletcher Foundation gave $50,000. The executive director of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation is Damon Circosta, who is also the current State Board of Elections chairman, appointed by Cooper.

Did WestEd use balanced academic rigor in creating the proposal?

It stands to reason that WestEd, given the billion of dollars that taxpayers might shell out at its recommendation, be examined for political bias. Of the WestEd board of directors, two have donated to the Cooper for North Carolina campaign. Fred Duval donated to Cooper’s race against Pat McCrory in 2016 and to former Democrat Gov. Jim Hunt in 1992. Fellow board of directors member Guilbert Hentschke also donated to Hunt in 1992. WestEd board of directors member Paul Houston donated four times to Cooper in 2019, 2020, and 2022, albeit in small amounts.

Donations to the left don’t stop at the C-Suite in WestEd. Senior Research Associate Julia Duffield donated to the Carolina Federal PAC, which spent more than $28,000 in 2020 mostly on campaign materials and web ads for Democrats, with no expenditures reported for Republicans.

Since 2006, there have been nearly 8,000 donations made by WestEd employees to ActBlue, the primary fundraising operation for Democrats nationwide, ranging from just a few dollars to thousands of dollars in donations. More than half of those donations have been made since the 2019 WestEd report was released, including two donations from WestEd consultants that were earmarked for Cheri Beasley, the current Democrat nominee for U.S. Senate and former N.C. Supreme Court chief justice.

“The ranges of donors and amounts don’t necessarily indicate a conflict of interest because WestEd employees and leaders certainly can donate to whichever political groups they want,” said Jim Stirling, research fellow at the John Locke Foundation’s Civitas Center for Public Integrity. “That said, it bears noting that our research does not turn up one donation to a Republican or Republican-linked group.”

Many donations are small — $10 here and there — or cover specific amounts like $26, which could often be a ticket to a political event, recorded as a donation.

“Digging into the patterns, we see an organization in WestEd has ties with Democrat leaders in the state, and likely helping shape their view on the role of public education,” said Stirling. “Combining that with the mission and information in their website and research, there has a common cultural mindset that is significantly left of where North Carolina voters are. To have this group establishing the educational agenda for our state is not appropriate.”

In an examination of Federal Elections Commission records, ActBlue got the single largest number of donations from those who listed WestEd as their employer over the last 20 years.

Other groups that got a high number of donations from WestEd employees are the presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden. Many also gave to the Democratic National Committee and congressional Democrat fundraising organizations. The now-retired WestEd director of valuation research, Nadia Tushnet, donated more than $3,000 in 2007 to former Democrat U.S. Sen. John Edwards’ presidential campaign.

Legal fight over the WestEd report

WestEd was set up in 1966 when the federal government started handing out grants for Regional Education Laboratories. There are currently 10 RELs in the country, including WestEd and a southeast regional agency. They are under five-year contracts with the federal National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. According to the government site, the current contract cycle is 2022 through 2027.

Former Superior Court Judge Howard Manning was the original presiding jurist in the Leandro case, appointed to handle it in 1997. He presided over the case until 2016 when he retired for medical reasons. In an interview with Carolina Journal earlier this year, Manning said the current struggles facing public schools are more about a breakdown in classroom instruction than a lack of funding.

“It’s a failure of classroom instruction. Pure and simple,” said Manning. “The money is not the point. [The public schools] get plenty of money.”

Manning added that he’s “angry” with poorly performing schools that don’t adequately teach young people.

“If this was GM or Ford or IBM or Apple, they would shut down every one of these schools because they’re not producing,” he said.

Can WestEd’s plan help shuttered schools recover?

WestEd’s plan was designed in 2018 and presented in 2019. Students who were in middle school when the plan was submitted have graduated from high school now. Much of the data used in WestEd’s study is old, with the report citing sources from the early 2000s.

Researchers at WestEd collaborated with the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at North Carolina State University and UNC’s Learning Policy Institute, but since developing the plan, North Carolina’s executive branch shut down the state’s public schools for in-person instruction for more than a year in 2020-2021, setting back learning for public school students for years.

With the seismic shift in focus on remedial education following the COVID shutdowns, plus the revealing holes in the public school system, WestEd’s researchers likely did not design the plan with a pandemic in mind. Priorities like wifi access and teacher training for remote instruction are largely neglected in the proposal. The term “remote learning” appears twice in the 301-page Action Plan. The term “internet” does not appear at all.

Supporters of the WestEd plan say that it sets a “roadmap” for public education and for the state to fulfill the duty to provide a sound, basic education, saying that it means pouring billions into the current system. Critics agree with the need to reform the K-12 education system but say that the WestEd plan just doesn’t cut it. The report itself points out that the current design of North Carolina’s public school system is failing students.

“With the current standards and assessments in place for the past six years, only about one-third of the state’s students in grades 3–8 reached proficiency in both of the two most critical curriculum areas, and about two-thirds failed to reach proficiency in one or both,” the report read.

But the solution, according to the plaintiffs, is more money and who controls it, not an overhaul of how curriculum and accountability is set, or a system to allow families to escape a failing school.

Now, the Leandro case goes before the 4-3 Democrat-leaning N.C. Supreme Court to determine who will chart the course of post-pandemic public education, in a time when more parents than ever are turning to homeschooling or private schools.

The case is front of mind for many in Raleigh, including Senate Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, who spoke to reporters about it in a press conference last week.

“I think that this is another chance for the Democrats on the state Supreme Court to show that they are not far leftist and understand that under our system of government, the representatives of the people decide how money is spent and how much,” he said.