Long-term 'Leandro' plan for more equitable education funding could cost NC hundreds of millions

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The North Carolina State Board of Education and Department of Public Instruction have submitted a long-term action plan in a long-running court case concerning the state’s underfunding of public education.

The two entities submitted the plan to Superior Court Judge David Lee late Monday. It details 52 pages of actions that address prior court orders to, among other things, increase teacher diversity, ensure that every school has competent teachers and principals and to increase and alter the way the state funds education. It also includes a goal of increasing access to high quality, year-long, pre-kindergarten so that at least 75% of North Carolina 4-year-olds are enrolled in pre-kindergarten in each of the state’s 100 counties.

The state has only filed the plan, and Lee will need to sign off on it. He hasn’t yet scheduled a court hearing.

The plan, as it’s written, would likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The authors have asked for some of that help from the General Assembly.

Education advocacy groups throughout North Carolina have been awaiting the plan for weeks.

Every Child NC released a statement on Monday on behalf of several groups, arguing that the plan means “excuses for inaction expire.” The plan is “fundamentally equitable” and provides specific details on how the state must proceed to comply with court orders, the statement reads.

“For decades, state leaders of both parties have failed to fulfill their constitutional duty to provide every child with access to a sound basic education,” the groups wrote. “Over the years, students and families have been given a litany of excuses for this legislative inaction. One of the primary excuses has been that legislators did not know exactly which investments and policy changes were necessary to ensure a constitutionally compliant education system.”

The document filed Monday is called the “remedial” plan, which is a long-term plan outlining the actions the state says it’s committed to taking by 2028 to comply with the previous court orders. The state has been working with the plaintiffs while developing the plan and used a consultant’s report and Gov. Roy Cooper’s Leandro Commission guidance to inform the plan.

Goals for a better and more equitable education would be realized by 2030, if the plan’s elements are implemented by 2028.

The legal battle dates back to 1994, when five relatively lower-income North Carolina county school districts sued the state, arguing they were insufficiently funded for providing a quality education to their students. Lower income counties can’t supplement state funding as easily as wealthier counties, they argued, and the state funding wasn’t enough.

The case has gone through different courts and judges, and the first ruling in favor of the counties was in Leandro v. State of North Carolina in 1997. In the last few years, a consultant, WestEd, has outlined what the state should do. The state submitted a short-term plan of action last year.