Like many states nationwide, North Carolina continues a deep and long-standing commitment to its children and to public education. Changes in the education system in the past decade, including higher standards, increased rigor, and the need to meet a wider range of student needs, can create challenges for states in their commitment to supporting all children.

In North Carolina, more than two decades ago, five school districts in the state filed a lawsuit, Leandro v. the State of North Carolina. In a landmark decision in 1997, The Supreme Court of North Carolina (the Court) unanimously affirmed that the state has a constitutional responsibility to provide every student — including those who are at risk, or from rural or underserved communities — with an equal opportunity for a sound, basic education. Yet, 20‑plus years later, the state has not yet met its obligation to provide education that meets this constitutional standard. In a historic development in 2020, all of the parties to the case agree that North Carolina must do more to ensure all children get a quality education.

In 2018, WestEd was jointly nominated by the Leandro parties, and appointed by NC Judge W. David Lee, to lead a comprehensive investigation into the major needs of North Carolina’s public education system in four overarching areas: Access to effective educators; access to effective school leaders; adequate and equitable school funding and other resources; and adequate accountability and assessment systems.

The WestEd team, led by Senior Program Director Susan Mundry, in collaboration with partners, the Learning Policy Institute and the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at North Carolina State University, conducted 13 studies to identify issues and challenges that would inform recommendations for a multi-year action plan to ensure North Carolina is able to serve all students and meet its constitutional obligations in the following areas:

  • Staffing each classroom with a competent, well-trained teacher
  • Staffing each school with a competent, well-trained principal
  • Identifying the resources necessary to ensure that all children have an equal opportunity to obtain a sound, basic education

More than 1,300 education stakeholders were engaged in providing input and information for the research, including superintendents, teachers, school staff, principals, parents, students, and district staff. Many others participated in discussions and focus groups, which included education stakeholders from the Department of Public Instruction and the State Board of Education and with the Chairman of the House Education Committee. Extensive interviews and discussions were also conducted with representatives of key education groups, including the North Carolina School Boards Association, the North Carolina School Superintendents Association, the North Carolina Principals and Assistant Principals Association, the North Carolina Association of Educators, and the business group BEST NC. WestEd also convened professional judgment panels with exemplary educators from across the state and conducted numerous site visits to many schools and school districts.

The research and action plan are being used by the Court to reach consensus on priority actions the state must implement. It identifies positive, interdisciplinary actions the state can take immediately and over the next decade to transform NC education and to ensure that each and every student in the state is afforded the opportunity to have a sound, basic education that provides necessary foundational opportunities to serve all students.

A link to access the research studies conducted for the project, the Executive Summary, and the action plan, Sound Basic Education for All: An Action Plan for North Carolina, can be found here.

On January 21, 2020, Judge Lee signed a Consent Order Regarding the Need for Remedial, Systemic Actions for the Achievement of Leandro Compliance. In the order, he says “the WestEd Report offers detailed findings about the current state of Leandro compliance in North Carolina, as well as important, comprehensive short- and long-term recommendations for a path forward to achieve constitutional compliance. These findings and recommendations are rooted in an unprecedented body of research and analysis, which will inform decision-making and this Court’s approach to this case.”

This work aligns directly with WestEd’s mission to promote excellence, achieve equity, and improve learning. The state will use the research-based recommendations to ensure improvements in the education system to address seven components. These are:

  1. A system of teacher development and recruitment that ensures each classroom is staffed with a high-quality teacher who is supported with early and ongoing professional learning and provided competitive pay;
  2. A system of principal development and recruitment that ensures each school is led by a high-quality principal who is supported with early and ongoing professional learning and provided competitive pay;
  3. A finance system that provides adequate, equitable, and predictable funding to school districts and, importantly, adequate resources to address the needs of all North Carolina schools and students, especially at-risk students as defined by the Leandro decisions;
  4. An assessment and accountability system that reliably assesses multiple measures of student performance against the Leandro standard and provides accountability consistent with the Leandro standard;
  5. An assistance and turnaround function that provides necessary support to low-performing schools and districts;
  6. A system of early education that provides access to high-quality pre-kindergarten and other early childhood learning opportunities to ensure that all students at risk of educational failure, regardless of where they live in the State, enter kindergarten on track for school success; and
  7. An alignment of high school to postsecondary and career expectations, as well as the provision of early postsecondary and workforce learning opportunities, to ensure student readiness to all students in the State.

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