Nov 14, 2022 - News

A massive education plan that could transform CMS hangs in the balance

Some education advocates are feeling cautiously optimistic about the North Carolina Supreme Court's decision this month to order a transfer of state funds for the Leandro plan. Photo: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

At a time when Charlotte-Mecklenburg student performance lags, the state’s highest court has nudged forward a remedial education plan with an estimated $278 million for the local school system.

Just days before the midterm election, the North Carolina Supreme Court’s Democratic majority upheld a previous lower court ruling ordering the General Assembly to fund two years of the eight-year Leandro plan, which is estimated to cost $5.6-billion .

  • Fully funded, Leandro (named after a plaintiff in the 28-year-old lawsuit) would boost CMS’ budget by an estimated 30% by 2028, according to Every Child NC.
  • It’s unclear how much of the funding will come out of the historic ruling, but it will only be a fraction of the entire plan.

Why it matters: The court declared, yet again, that the state is failing to provide all children with a sound basic education.

  • “About six-and-a-half million kids have gone through (the) North Carolina system since this case started, and we know we’re not doing right by them,” says child advocate Sandra Wilcox Conway, who has followed the case closely as part of her education philanthropy work.
  • Of CMS’ 181 schools, 94 receive Title I federal funding because they have so many students living at, near or below the poverty line, per the Observer. A third of CMS students are economically disadvantaged.

Some education advocates are celebrating the court’s reassertion, but they’re cautious about the future of Leandro.

The court’s decision was 4-3 along party lines, and Tuesday’s election flipped the majority on the state Supreme Court 5-2 to the GOP. Proponents of Leandro fear the new judges would overturn this month’s decision.

  • “That will be to the detriment of students all across the state,” CMS school board member Jennifer De La Jara told Axios. “We know that those resources that have been detailed out in the remedial plan are absolutely necessary, and I just hope that we will have a groundswell of support across the state to stand up and say that our students deserve it.”
  • The court declared it was safeguarding the constitutional rights of North Carolina children. Critics, on the other hand, argued the judiciary was overstepping in telling the legislature how to spend tax dollars.

By the numbers: According to more estimates from Every Child NC, Leandro’s impact could increase the amount of funding per CMS student by nearly $2,000, if implemented as written. It could pay for more than 700 additional teacher assistants and more than 800 nurses, psychologists, counselors and social workers. Plus, it allocates supplementary funds for children with disabilities, English learners, and at-risk and disadvantaged students.

  • The “spirit” of the Leandro plan is that expenditures will be built into the state budget as reoccurring items, explains Kris Nordstrom, senior policy analyst with North Carolina Justice Center.
  • “This is step one of a long process to secure the resources … the bare minimum of what students are owed,” Nordstrom says. “Even though these numbers are large, this is not an ambitious plan compared to what other states get.”

Between the lines: There are benefits for early childhood education as well, with the potential to add 2,610 pre-K slots and increase Smart Start funding by 362%, according to Early Child NC’s approximations.

  • “The Leandro plan could have a demonstrable impact on early care and education in the state of North Carolina, which in turn would have a huge impact on Charlotte and Mecklenburg County,” says Jake House, CEO of Smart Start of Mecklenburg County. “Early care and education has been underfunded for decades, and this is fixing the systemic inequity.”
  • He adds that this isn’t about politics for Smart Start, but an investment in families and the local economy. “We are truly Switzerland.”

Flashback: Leandro was filed in 1994 by five rural school districts with minuscule local tax bases that said they were lacking the recourses to adequately educate students to the constitutional standard.

  • Soon after, CMS joined the case with four other urban districts who argued the state wasn’t accounting for the “extraordinary” needs of city school children. The bulk of CMS’ operating budget, around 60%, comes from the state.
  • “We’re fortunate in one sense that Mecklenburg County does have a tax base,” De La Jara says. “But we also have greater challenges, like higher cost of living.”

A year ago, a trial judge ordered the state to transfer $1.75 billion from the general fund to cover two years of the remedial spending plan. But Senate Leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore intervened, arguing that only the legislature can appropriate money from the state Treasury. They call the court’s move “usurpation.”

Yes, but: The General Assembly could fund the remaining years of the plan without court involvement. “The court has given the legislative branch a lot of deference over the years to come up with a plan and implement it, and they failed to do so repeatedly,” says Matt Ellinwood, director of NC Justice Center’s Education and Law Project. “That led to this ruling.” Ellinwood, an attorney, worked on an amicus brief for the case.

  • The Republican dissent focused on the court encroaching on the legislature’s authority, “the very definition of tyranny.”
  • The conservative John Locke Foundation, however, contends on its website that “more funding is not a silver bullet.”
  • The center notes progress the state has made in education funding, such as the average teacher salary growing from $46,700 to $55,905 since 2011.

Reality check: CMS says it has more than 350 teacher vacancies right now. North Carolina recently cut retirement healthcare benefits for new teachers hired, making its open positions less attractive.

What’s next: A trial court is expected to recalculate how much the state must transfer. But with the GOP soon controlling the Supreme Court, questions loom about how far the ruling will reach: Will the two years of the Leandro plan be executed? Could the entire case stalemate or even be reversed?

  • “I’m worried that with a Republican majority on the Supreme Court that (funding) could be reduced or the case be overturned completely,” school board member De La Jara says.

“Historically, the courts don’t just go back and change things so quickly after they were decided just based on changes in the makeup of the court,” Ellinwood says, “because that would be so harmful to the integrity and legitimacy of our court system and the way it’s perceived by the public.”

The bottom line: The landmark ruling has inspired hopes among advocates, but a battle still lies ahead to carry out the rest of Leandro.


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