A funny thing happened on my way to…

November 7, 2022 | By Isabel Geffner, Advancement Director

A funny thing happened on my way to read a report by our beloved and wise AmeriCorps member Parker Nelson. Some time back, Parker had done a deep dive into the how the North Carolina government has influenced – for better or worse – our state’s education system. Parker is a devoted student and practitioner of equitable access, inclusive opportunities, and equal justice. I was eager to look again at his observations and points of view. That was last Thursday.

Graphic initially published by Indy Week

And then, on Friday of last week, my inbox was flooded with the remarkable news that the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in the long-standing Leandro case that every child in the state must have the opportunity to receive a sound basic education. The ruling comes after a 28-year-long lawsuit against the state; filed in 1994, parents, children, and school districts in five low-income rural counties alleged that children were not receiving what was required by the state constitution.

It’s been a long and winding road with legal limbo detours – up to this moment, with several previous rulings and appeals, most recently in 2017 when the plaintiffs and the attorney general’s office agreed that an independent consultant should over a review and recommendations. That report, used by WestEd, a California company offered a detailed report laying out problems and possible solutions. The school districts and state then came to a settlement agreement in 2021, known as the comprehensive remedial plan.

But that plan wasn’t fully funded by the General Assembly until Friday, when the North Carolina Supreme Court issued a ruling mandating that it must be funded, paving the way for a $5.6 billion increase in annual state education spending.

Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), responded to the ruling:

“We know there are disparities across the state between affluent school districts and those that do not have funds and resources. Today is a win for equity, access and opportunity for students across the state to receive a high quality public education.”

Which brings me right back to Parker’s report about the state of education in North Carolina – which I did go back to read after going through my flooded inbox! Parker brought to startling light the egregious disparities in funding and support for students by income and race.

  • He reported that “the poorest counties tax themselves at double the rate that the 10 wealthiest counties do ($0.81 compared to $0.44).”
  • Yet he pointed out that that in no way compensates for the unconscionable disparities in per-pupil spending: “In 2019, the ten highest spending counties spent an average of $3,200 per student, compared to an average of $755 by the 10 lowest spending counties. That is the largest gap recorded since 1987, when the Public School Forum began tracking spending in the state.”
  • And, he asserted, “We need government programs and policies that directly target the issues we see arising in education. North Carolina students’ quality of education shouldn’t have to suffer based on where their families live, what race they are, how much money their parents make, or because teachers aren’t being provided the support they need in the classroom. The reality of the situation is that access to basic education is a fundamental right for all children in the state, so we need to be advocates for better education legislation at the state level.”

Yes, on Friday we celebrated the champions for educational equity who offered some hope that remedies that Parker passionately believes in may be – at last – on their way. The funding that will come will address school resources, as well as numerous policy changes concerning school improvement and accountability. We are hoping to see increased funding for students with disabilities, schools that serve more lower-income students, and early childhood and pre-kindergarten education, programs.

Surely, this is not the whole solution Parker – and so many of us – continue to work so hard to realize. But it’s a start, a ray of hope that, together, as we continue to stand alongside the precious children who are our shared future, we can promise them a better tomorrow.

Parker Nelson is a beacon of light, and his voice continues to inspire me to keep showing up and doing the work. And maybe – like last week – the systems in place will follow us.