LAUREN FOX & MICHAEL PRIDDY: Top education issue? Keeping guarantee of a sound basic education for every child

Posted February 18, 2020 5:00 a.m. EST
Updated February 18, 2020 5:51 a.m. EST

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

EDITOR'S NOTE: Dr. Lauren Fox is the senior director of policy for the Public School Forum of N.C. Dr. Michael D. Priddy is the acting president/executive Director. Today, at its annual Eggs and Issues breakfast, the Forum releases its report on the top education issues for 2020.

For each of the last five years, the Public School Forum of North Carolina has highlighted the Top Ten Educational Issues expected to shape the debate between policymakers and elected leaders. This year the Forum takes a different tack, inspired by the recent court order in the decades-old “Leandro” school funding case. This year state leaders must focus on just one Top Educational Issue: Take immediate and intentional actions to meet our state constitutional obligation to provide each child a sound basic education.

Late last year a much-anticipated court-ordered independent report: “Sound Basic Education for All: An Action Plan for North Carolina” was released. It was based on 13 extensive research studies conducted by WestEd and their partners at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at N.C. State University and the Learning Policy Institute. The studies assessed what it would take to ensure that our state fulfills its constitutional obligation to provide every child access to a sound basic education. This report’s release came 25 years after five low-wealth counties filed suit against the state, successfully arguing their schools and their students were not receiving adequate resources to provide a quality education.

The WestEd report left no room for further debate over what many educators, parents, researchers, and state leaders have been saying for years: North Carolina does not provide the resources to meet the fundamental needs of all of our students, to the detriment of our children and the future well-being of our state. In fact, the researchers found that North Carolina is “further away from meeting its constitutional obligation to provide every child with the opportunity for a sound basic education than it was when the Supreme Court of North Carolina issued the Leandro decision more than 20 years ago.”

As we stated a year ago in our top education issue, and remains the case today, a strong and equitable system of public education benefits all in our society, not only those who attend or have children enrolled in public schools. As public and private sector leaders across North Carolina have recognized for decades, it is both a moral and economic imperative that all children obtain the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in the 21st-century workforce and participate fully in our democratic society. The mandate to finally provide equitable educational opportunities to our students should be heeded by all, regardless of political party. It demands a dedicated, collaborative effort.

As set forth in WestEd report commissioned by Superior Court Judge David Lee, it is critical that additional resources be targeted at students who historically have been underserved. Thirty-three percent of the state’s traditional public schools are considered to be high-poverty -- more than 75 percent of the student population is economically disadvantaged, and nearly two-thirds of the state’s 115 school districts are classified as low-wealth. Students of color, non-native English speakers, students with disabilities and economically disadvantaged students disproportionately attend high-poverty schools. And high-poverty schools and schools serving higher proportions of students of color are far less likely to have access to well-qualified teachers and principals, challenging curriculum, and other resources essential to providing the opportunity for a sound basic education.

Following the release of the report, Judge Lee last month signed a consent order agreeing with the consensus of all parties in the Leandro suit that a definite action plan must be implemented this year for the successful provision of the constitutional Leandro rights — a sound basic education for all. By March 30 the parties will submit specific actions to address the issues identified by the court-ordered report and in the January consent order.

We hope this order prods lawmakers to immediately initiate both short and long-term steps to address the demonstrated needs of our public schools.

We could look at 2020 as just another year of political battles and stagnant progress that has characterized much of the last decade. But we are hopeful that this decade will usher in real progress toward transforming public education in North Carolina.

It is time for stakeholders to make our state a leader again by creating a more equitable and higher quality system of public education as mandated by our state constitution. And, there will be a revived commitment to secure the future civic and economic well-being of our children and our state. It will take time, resources, and collaborative effort, but it is well within our ability to accomplish this and the investment now will pay off exponentially in the future.

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