Can $5.6 billion really solve North Carolina's education problems?

We already know the answer - the Leandro plan won't work

The education debate in North Carolina often boils down to numbers. What percentage raise should teachers get this year? What should the average teacher salary be? Where does the state rank in per-pupil spending?

This year, there’s just one number that matters: $5.6 billion. That’s the price tag on the consultant-driven plan that promises to fix North Carolina’s public education system, once and for all. The General Assembly’s proposed budget largely ignores this plan, but a Superior Court judge has promised to force the state to pay for it.

The problem is, we already know this plan won’t work. A virtually identical plan has already been tried and failed in the state’s largest city.

North Carolina simply can’t buy student achievement. The real answer is a whole lot harder than that.

“Sound basic education”

Back in 1997, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the state has a constitutional obligation to provide a “sound basic education” to all students, a landmark decision stemming from a lawsuit brought by a group of parents in low-income, rural counties who sued over the conditions of their classrooms. Urban districts jumped in, saying the disproportionate percentage of children in poverty required additional money to provide the same.

In the 20-plus years since, North Carolina has beefed up its support for rural districts, creating a capital fund to help them pay to build and renovate school buildings. The General Assembly has created Opportunity Scholarships to give low-income families the chance to find a high-quality school that works for them. And today, urban school districts like Charlotte-Mecklenburg spend thousands of dollars more per student in high-poverty schools than for their wealthier, suburban neighbors.

Yet education gaps persist, and the decision in what’s known as the Leandro case still looms large. In 2018, the court commissioned the consulting group WestEd to create a report outlining the problems in providing a sound basic education and detailing solutions. A year later, the report emerged — a 300-page document with recommendations totaling $6.8 billion in new spending. Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration turned the report into a virtually identical action plan, albeit with a slightly smaller price tag: $5.6 billion.

The main recommendations are fairly straightforward: Ensuring each classroom has a good teacher and each school a good principal, and spending more money on students with the most challenges.

Last month, the Superior Court judge overseeing the state’s compliance with the Leandro decision threatened to take action to compel the state to follow the WestEd plan, potentially holding the General Assembly in contempt.

Doing so would create a constitutional crisis. The General Assembly holds the purse strings in North Carolina. Can a judge essentially allocate money on his own?

But let’s set that aside for a minute. The more important question is whether following the WestEd report would actually achieve the results it promises. The thesis is clear: Money is the main impediment holding North Carolina back from accomplishing its duties.

But can North Carolina solve its education by simply spending $5.6 billion? That would certainly be a worthy investment, particularly as the state maintains roughly that amount in unspent surpluses.

Here’s the thing: We know the answer already - because we’ve already tried it.

The General Assembly has dramatically increased education funding over the decade since Republicans gained control. Lawmakers have also already implemented a number of initiatives included in the WestEd report, including:

  • Creating advanced teacher roles that offer more pay for more responsibility

  • Spending tens of millions of dollars to end the waitlist for NC Pre-K

  • Expanding the Teaching Fellows program at historically black colleges to create a more diverse teaching pool.

But a broader experiment on the WestEd model has already played out in the state’s second-largest district, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

The failure of Project LIFT

West Charlotte High was once the pride of the city, a diverse and high-achieving school that served as a national model of integration. But when controversial forced busing policies met their end and neighborhood schools became the norm, West Charlotte began to serve one of the most impoverished populations in the district.

Starting in the early 2000s, superintendent after superintendent pitched their plans to help the struggling school and its students succeed. The most ambitious launched in 2012: Project LIFT.

CMS and local nonprofits raised more than $55 million for a program to boost West Charlotte High and all of its feeder elementary and middle schools. The aim was to bring the high school’s graduation rate to 90%, and student proficiency to 90% as well.

Its strategies mirror the WestEd report nearly to the letter. Those millions went to bring in top principals and teachers, give the best teachers the opportunity for more impact (and pay), hire more counselors and support staff, equip every student with technology and expand after-school and summer programs.

Project LIFT started with a bang but ended with a whimper. Six years later, the program closed up shop as an abject failure. Virtually no improvement could be detected across the 23 schools.

“It has not served our people well. I'm just not satisfied with the outcome of LIFT at all," Mecklenburg County Commissioner Vilma Leake told the Charlotte Observer. Now, her board is threatening to withhold $56 million from the school district until it can produce a plan to improve student achievement. Commissioners are tired of throwing money at a problem with the same old strategies.

Education advocates on all sides of the political aisle agree: No amount of money can buy what a failing school needs to turn around.

“The money keeps increasing, and the academic performance keeps decreasing,” Rev. Dennis Williams said at a public gathering of black clergy. “More money and doing the same is not going to get us where we need to go.”

Communities, not cash

And what is that exactly? There is no one magic formula, that much is clear. The success stories we can look at show that it’s not government money that makes the difference — but it might be community.

Schools need parents. In the literal sense, a core group of dedicated parents is critical to helping a school and its students succeed. But it’s true in the figurative sense as well. Schools, it seems, need someone to love them, to serve them, guide them, hold them accountable and correct them if necessary.

Shamrock Gardens Elementary in east Charlotte was one of the lowest-performing schools in North Carolina, on the verge of a state takeover or shutdown. Then a group of parents stepped up, committing to supporting its teachers, run extracurriculars and fund field trips. Teachers began to stick around longer. Student achievement soared.

Five miles south, McClintock Middle found itself in much the same boat. But in 2007, then-CMS Superintendent Peter Gorman called on the faith community to get involved in the public schools, and Christ Lutheran Church answered. They committed to tutoring and mentoring students at the middle school down the street. Over time, the program evolved into a program that brings families and volunteers together from throughout the school community for a Tuesday evening club and activity night. UNC Charlotte researchers studied the program and found that chronic absenteeism dropped as a result, and student achievement rose.

The WestEd plan doesn’t touch on any of these strategies. In fact, it barely mentions parents at all. But no amount of government money can replace them.

Rather than force the General Assembly to stroke a big check for the same old tired policies that have failed again and again, the courts should consider strategies that are less expensive but significantly harder: Breaking up concentrations of poverty, changing the culture of failing schools, empowering parents and holding schools and school districts accountable.

5 Things of Note

1) Cooper's veto keeps workers at home. On the Friday before the holiday weekend, Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the Putting North Carolina Back to Work Act, which would have ended the extra federal unemployment payments and instead used the money for more subsidized child care. It’s beyond time to get back to normal, and jobs are out there.

2) North Carolina “Name, Image & Likeness” bill coming. With the NCAA removing its ban on college athletes making money on their names, Sen. Jim Perry (R-Lenoir) says the Senate will be putting together a bill that gives universities some guidelines for implementing their policies. States across the country have passed NIL bills, at first to push the NCAA’s hand. Now that that’s accomplished, it doesn’t appear at first glance that states really need NIL laws. But then somebody pointed out to me on Twitter that such a law could keep a college from infringing on a student’s rights. That seems like a worthy endeavor.

3) Charlotte Observer covers for Kendi, CRT. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools paid author and notable critical race theorist Ibram X. Kendi $25,000 to speak virtually to a staff conference this summer. After a public records request, CMS finally coughed up the recording to a few media outlets. The Charlotte Observer was one of them - but rather than post the video for everyone to see, the paper promises that everything in it was fine. In fact, Kendi only mentioned CRT for two minutes, the article states.

Earth to the Observer: Just because you only say the words “Critical Race Theory” a few times doesn’t mean the entire talk wasn’t shot through with its application. Every single quote the Observer uses from this presentation we’re not allowed to see is rife with it. There was once a time the state’s biggest newspapers would ask tough questions of people in power, no matter what their political persuasion. Those days are long gone, and this is just one more reminder.

4) “Voter suppression” claims go too far. Charlotte’s City Council district races are getting bumped to 2022 because of the Census delay, but the city still faced a choice on when to hold the elections for mayor and at-large (citywide) seats. The Black Political Caucus of Charlotte-Mecklenburg came out with a statement saying holding the mayoral and at-large elections as scheduled would constitute “voter suppression” that disenfranchises black voters as well as students, the elderly, and people with disabilities. The words “voter suppression” officially no longer have meaning in North Carolina.

5) Why are Republicans backing medical marijuana? A bill from Sen. Bill Rabon (R-Brunswick) that would legalize medical marijuana got support from Democrats and Republicans in a committee hearing. Democrats, of course, have long pushed marijuana decriminalization. Republicans, up to now, have been much more hesitant. Medical marijuana does well in opinion polling, but virtually nobody votes based on a candidate’s stance on weed.

While I’m sympathetic to the argument that cannabis chemicals can be used therapeutically, I don’t understand why marijuana should be treated differently than any other medicine. The FDA has approved one cannabis product, a liquid, for use. It hasn’t approved smoking marijuana for any purpose. Doctors can’t prescribe marijuana, and creating a whole marijuana infrastructure to get around that fact doesn’t make a ton of sense.