The 25-year lawsuit to improve education funding in North Carolina reached a major milestone last week and reactions ranged from “I told you so.” to “How will we pay for it all?”

Following about two years of research, the state’s independent contractor, California-based WestEd, produced a 300-page report on the history and future of paying for public education based on the obligation set forth in the state constitution.

The report was first presented to Superior Court Judge David Lee for review as part of what is known as the Leandro Case, a lawsuit initiated in 1994 by some school districts which claimed that the state was not adequately funding their public schools according to the state constitution. The last decision in the case was handed down in 2002 by Judge Howard Manning, who presided over the case until handing it over to Lee in 2015. Manning ordered that all North Carolina students had a right to a “sound basic education.”

The WestEd report was part of the renewed effort, led by Gov. Roy Cooper, to resolve the longstanding case, and it outlines eight findings and recommendations to improve public education:

  • Finance and Resource Allocation
  • A Qualified and Well-Prepared Teacher in Every Classroom
  • A Qualified and Well-Prepared Principal in Every School
  • Early Childhood Education
  • High-Poverty Schools
  • State Assessment Systems and School Accountability
  • Regional and State Supports for School Improvement
  • Monitoring the State’s Compliance

These findings and recommendations cover just about every facet of public education, and it is the General Assembly’s obligation to pass laws to address these findings. Some may be done directly through legislation, including the state budget, while others can be done by empowering state agencies such as the Department of Public Instruction and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Many may want to argue about student outcomes, teacher quality, or school performance, and use those issues as cudgels against “throwing good money after bad.” Others may want to insist that places like New York have per-pupil expenditures that are much higher than North Carolina and their test scores aren’t any better, suggesting that more money won’t solve the problems. These arguments miss the point entirely.

What really needs to happen is a major paradigm shift from all corners of the education spectrum. North Carolina needs to stop treating education funding like a bill that’s come due and start treating it like an investment toward future gains.

The argument that “education spending is ‘X’ percent of the state budget” or that the state has “increased education spending by ‘Y’ million dollars over ‘Z’ years” are not indicators of accomplishment. These are all the words of people looking at an invoice, not an investment. An invoice represents a purchase, while an investment represents a goal that is a choice to grow one’s own capital.

North Carolina needs to grow its human capital through public education. By investing in education, this state is investing the future of its people, its workforce, its productivity, its attractiveness to new enterprise, its quality of life, and to its tax base.

It’s up to our legislators to use the findings of this report to begin the process next year to reshape state funding of public education by increasing spending to hire more social workers, counselors, and psychologists; funding more teaching assistant positions; raising salaries significantly for teachers, administrators, and non-certified personnel; and by putting a statewide school construction bond on the ballot in the November 2020 election.

There’s much more work to be done, though, and that work must be done by the voters. During the 2020 campaign season, voters much attend events like town halls and debates to ask candidates specifically how they will respond to the findings of the WestEd report, and then vote for the candidate who appears to have the best understanding and best plan of action to get it right.

The WestEd report is a milestone on the journey to a world-class public education system that will be looked back upon as the point where North Carolina decided what type of public education system it wanted for its residents. Our state may not know where this road will take us, but the WestEd report is the best map we have. Let’s not move past this point without turning in a bold new direction that will produce unprecedented investment gains for the people of our great state.

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