Court must affirm Leandro order and plan, N.C. must fund it

Published July 28, 2022

By Mary Ann Wolf

“We don’t have any teacher applicants for our vacancies,” said two superintendents from rural North Carolina public school districts.

Think about that. If they do not find qualified replacements or come up with alternative solutions, students will arrive on the first day of school Aug. 29 in classrooms without teachers.

These two are not alone. Despite their best efforts, public school districts across the state are struggling with skyrocketing teacher vacancies and a dearth of candidates to fill critical positions in all subject areas.

This is not simply due to the COVID pandemic, but is a problem that has been escalating for many years. Enrollment in teacher education programs has decreased by more than a third over the last decade. Many teachers leave classrooms after only a couple of years in the profession. Still others are retiring earlier than in the past.

We are absolutely in a crisis: To those who don’t see it now, it will be vividly evident when school starts in August. We do not have enough teachers.

Every student needs, deserves, and is promised highly qualified, effective educators. We have strong educator preparation programs in our colleges and universities and districts, and schools work to ensure that this is the case. However, if people do not see teaching as a promising and viable career option in NC, there isn’t anything our schools, districts, or preparation programs can do that will be enough. And don’t be misled, this crisis is hitting independent and private schools too.

As I hear about teacher after teacher leaving the profession, I find myself trying to understand why a state with a strong economy -- a state that strives to attract cutting-edge businesses and innovation – is not making this most basic and obvious investment in our future.

CNBC recently lauded North Carolina as the #1 state in the country for business, yet we hear from business leaders that they struggle to find enough qualified candidates for the jobs in our state. Businesses need strong graduates from our K-12 programs, community colleges, and universities. We have countless research studies pointing to the importance of investing in public education for the long-term success of students and our economy.

In North Carolina, it is the state’s responsibility to fund public education. Yet our state lawmakers make decision after decision failing to invest sufficiently in our future -- in our kids and their schools.

It did not have to be like this. But years of imprudent policy and funding decisions have led to this point.

The state has a significant budget surplus, $6.5 billion just this year. We have the money - and when considering the return on investment, is there a better way to spend our surplus than to invest in our students?

We also know the facts contributing to people not entering or staying in teaching:

● NC spends at least $3,000 below the national average per pupil each year.
● NC beginning teachers currently make 17% less than Alabama, and NC teachers with 35 years experience make 23% less than Alabama teachers.
● On average, NC teachers make $10,000 below the national average (and this includes the local supplements, so the state funding is much lower).
● We gave our teachers a 4% raise (including the step increases they were promised), which is half of inflation for the same period.

We know what we need to do.

Next month, the North Carolina Supreme Court will once again hear the Leandro Case, the nearly 30 year old case where the courts have repeatedly ruled that NC has not provided the constitutionally-mandated sound, basic education for all our students. The appeals the court will soon consider, do not question the fact that the state has not met its obligation. That is clear. The appeals focus on who can make the legislature adequately fund our schools.

Over the past week, Amicus Briefs filed in support of fully funding the Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan have made clear that there is strong support for public education among North Carolinians. Over 144 nonprofit organizations, philanthropies, and associations from across the state signed on to this Amicus Briefand more than 50 business leaders signed on to this brief sharing the urgency of providing targeted, critical resources to public schools.

The Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan is the consensus agreed upon by the defendants and plaintiffs to provide a detailed, evidence-based roadmap to the investments needed for kids and educators across NC. We need to get the politics out of this and focus on what the research and data tells us we need for kids. The investments are research based and common sense. We need a high quality and well prepared teacher for every child, a high quality principal for every school, early childhood opportunities, postsecondary pathways, and student supports through counselors, social workers, nurses, and psychologists. And, we need accountability and finance systems that support our schools and districts.

We must stop making choices that prevent us from ensuring our kids have access to a high quality and equitable education. NC will become one of only three states that do not have a corporate income tax or a gross receipts tax. This decision will make it more difficult in the future to ensure that we have the resources available to invest in public schools so that every child has access to a high quality and equitable education that will prepare them for future success.

We must seize this moment as parents, as community members, as business leaders, and as public officials to do what our kids need. Demonstrating to our educators and our communities that education is a priority for our state and our families must begin today.

It all goes back to doing what we need for our kids, our families, our communities, and our economy. It’s clear and common sense. Our educators need the rest of us to realize what they work to ensure every day -- that our students are prepared to lead our state and our communities. We can do this. We must let our leaders know without uncertainty that we must invest and prioritize education in NC. Our childrens’ futures -- and the future of our state -- depend on it.