In the WestEd Report: A Review, Part I, I examine the good and the bad of the WestEd Report (WER). Part II continues the critique, examines a major constitutional question raised by WER and the consent order and offers some recommendations to improve the current climate. But first let’s continue to discuss other shortcomings of the West Ed Report.
Adequacy Studies and the Magic Number
One final objection to WER and its recommendations is that, in its most basic form, WER is an adequacy study. It analyzes a system but only looks at inputs, and not outputs. It’s a study which asks the question: Is North Carolina spending adequately to comply with Leandro? The reality is, adequacy studies are tools frequently used by the liberal and progressive groups to boost education funding.
WER recommends almost $8 billion in additional spending over 8 years. That’s the magic number. Recent articles have come out that now say the number to comply with our constitutional obligations is much less. The truth is, the number is irrelevant. There is no magic number that will automatically lead to improvements in the schools.
States and counties have different policies that determine how much they will – and want – to spend on schools. How can schools in poor areas do better than better funded schools in wealthy areas? The policies are as important to understand as the funding levels.
WER asks: is North Carolina spending enough on K-12 public education to comply with the Leandro obligations? If a magic number existed and was verified by research, we certainly would already be spending that amount. The problem is such a number does not exist. It also ignores how schools spend money and how policies influence spending decisions. To reduce all these factors to a number is a misreading of how schools operate and how education occurs.
Misuse of Statistics
Another problem with WER’s recommendations concerns the use or misuse of data to justify the recommendations. The Leandro case has been before the courts for over a quarter century. But you wouldn’t know that if you reviewed many of the stats used to justify the recommendations.
It’s reasonable to assume that any statistic measuring the impact of Leandro should extend at least back to when the decision was issued in 1997 or when the case was filed in 1994. That’s not the case. Numerous timelines in WER begin in 2010 or thereabouts. Why?
Statistically speaking, it makes no sense. The year 2010 represents the year that Republicans gained control of both houses of the legislature. However, Republicans didn’t take office until 2011. Starting an analysis in 2010 politicizes the entire process and conveys the notion that when Democrats had majorities in the legislature, the issue of education funding was simply unimportant.
WER is heavy on noting on how Republicans cut funding or were slow to get funding up to the high-water levels of 2008. When they concentrate on these time periods, the authors demonstrate an ignorance of the realities of a recession and how long it often takes for funding levels to normalize.
A second statistical problem WER has is that it depends heavily on the use of inflation and population growth to make the case for higher education spending in North Carolina. Unfortunately, the case isn’t always honestly made. WER notes the differences in cost of living across counties. However, when providing teacher pay data, WER fails to mention the difference in cost-of-living across states. Such information would certainly have provided a more accurate comparison of teacher salaries across the nation and provided a more accurate picture of North Carolina teacher pay relative to surrounding states.
Another statistical problem was pointed out by Terry Stoops of the John Locke Foundation. Stoops criticized WER because of how it used North Carolina NAEP scores to cite a decline in educational achievement since 2013 but failed to use adjusted scores published by the Urban Institute. Those scores are preferred because the adjusted NAEP scores account for demographic differences like difference in race, special education and language proficiency. Such changes can have significant impacts on test performance across populations. Adjusted NAEP scores provide a more accurate picture and improved picture of how North Carolina is doing in comparison to other states. Yet the authors failed to use readily available adjusted scores.
Depending on your sources, WER requests North Carolina spend anywhere from $6-8 billion in additional funds over eight years to satisfy the constitutional requirements of Leandro. That’s a lot of money to create another system to boost and monitor student achievement. Another shortcoming of WER is that it discounts the real problems associated with the current governance structure of the public schools in North Carolina. Is the legislature in charge of public education? The Department of Public Instruction or the State Board of Education? No one really seems to know. The current confusion makes it easy to stifle innovation and change.
WER wants a lot of money to improve public education. But haven’t we heard all this before? Do you remember: Goals 2000, No Child Left Behind, Common Core, Race to the Top, Every Student Succeeds Act?
What all those efforts have in common is they were products of a massive sales campaign, but all failed to live up to the promises of their advocates. A review of reading, math and college preparation scores for North Carolina students reveals Common Core has not produced the expected improvements in student achievement. Does anyone think Common Core has been a success? What about Race to the Top? North Carolina received $400 million from the U.S. government. What beneficial impacts have those grants produced? Now policymakers want additional spending in the billions to make us compliant with Leandro and ensure children are receiving a sound, basic education and improve student achievement. That’s an important question. Considering the lack of results from recent educational efforts, what evidence has West Ed put forth to ensure the plan will be a success? None is offered.
In early December Judge Lee released the WestEd Report. On January 21, 2020 Lee signed a consent order requiring parties to implement the recommendations and make the necessary systemic changes to ensure North Carolina is compliant with the requirements of Leandro.
Judge Lee knows the legislature is not a party to the case. But Lee knows the legislature’s responsibility for funding the public schools. Lawmakers too must be involved in the Leandro remedy. Lee’s timeline also assumes a willingness and ability for the legislature, governor and policy leaders to work together. Based on the level of action to date, I don’t know if the assumption was realistic. The consent order is only binding on the parties and Lee knows he cannot legally order lawmakers to appropriate additional money for education.
Compelling the legislature to set prescribed levels of education spending violates the separation of powers clause of the North Carolina State Constitution (See Article I, Section 6). The state constitution provides specific language for appropriations, which is the duty of legislators. The executive branch executes and administers the budget. The constitution lays out no role for the courts in the budget process.
Our constitution states unequivocally that money for public schools can only be appropriated by the legislative branch. The legislative branch has the power of the purse. Any directive that compels the legislature to adopt spending recommendations violates our constitution and essentially disenfranchise voters.
Public education and how it is funded will always be a hotly debated topic. Ideas about what children learn, how they learn and how much to spend, are inherently political questions. As such, our constitution has a framework for answering those questions. Legislators are charged with developing policy and funding the best way to answer these questions. In doing so, they will listen to parents, other legislators, educators, interest groups and the public. They are often elected and defeated based on their votes on education and other issues. If a lawmaker is not responsive to voters on education issues or other issues for that matter, he or she is accountable to the voters, as intended by the constitution. To decide the issues any other way is to subvert the state constitution.
This is not to say the courts don’t have a role, their constitutionally defined role is to interpret the law and tell the legislature when laws are out-of-bounds, and not consistent with the constitution. Problems emerge when courts are charged with developing the solutions to the cases on which they rule. Do courts have the capacity and expertise to resolve intractable social problems? Judges are not educators, nor are they skilled social scientists. What evidence exists that the courts would have any better results boosting student achievement than state and local governments who have been wrestling with the topic for years. What improvements have come from the 25 years of court action in the Leandro case? The fact is the courts simply lack the capacity and breadth of knowledge to solve complicated problems. If the courts prescribe funding levels for education, it is only likely to destabilize systems of education that have existed for decades.
Assigning the courts decision-making authority over issues of education policy – issues that are inherently political – is a frightening prospect and one with a poor track record. In an insightful op-ed where she argued against a proposed Constitutional Amendment in Minnesota to make a quality education a fundamental right, Katherine Kersten highlights some of the troubling concerns which could accompany approval of such an amendment. A right to a quality education creates a positive right, which doesn’t limit the power of government but expands it to a mandated outcome. Some significant questions emerge: How do we achieve or accomplish it? Who decides whether something meets the desired outcome, or the standards used to meet it? You know the answers to these questions.
Have the courts improved student achievement or narrowed the racial achievement gap? History is filled with many experiments but little progress (see here and here). New Jersey courts ordered school districts to aid low income districts. Taxpayers spent billions on school construction, universal pre-K and social services. Per pupil spending skyrocketed. Researchers say student achievement has flatlined and in some cases, declined. Sadly, there are other examples. Over 18 years in the 80s and 90s a federal judge ordered taxpayers in Kansas City to spend $2 billion on projects and programs to improve the Kansas City Public Schools. Per pupil spending shot to number one in the country. Despite the massive increases, the additional spending produced little gains in student improvement.
So, what is the connection to North Carolina? North Carolina already has an obligation to provide a sound, basic education. For the past 25 years the courts have ruled on what that means and what is involved with the process. The case presided over by an appointed judge has taken a quarter century to decide, and it looks as if the case will be in the courts for the foreseeable future. Are the courts the right place to develop and implement the remedies? Not according to the constitution. Those questions are best settled in the legislative process, through our elected representatives.
WER addresses one of the most important questions facing our state: How can North Carolina comply with the constitutional obligations to provide children an opportunity for a sound basic education? WER’s questionable recommendations are rooted in a process riddled with shortcomings. Equally troubling is Judge Lee’s unquestioned embrace of the findings and the timing of the consent order. Lee expresses optimism about being able to work with legislators. However, if interaction with legislators is as important as Judge Lee says, it’s hard to understand why legislators were not included in the process much earlier.
To improve these efforts, I offer the following recommendations to correct WER’s shortcomings and improve our policy making.
- Lift the consent order. The order to implement all the recommendations falsely assumes all the recommendations are vetted and reviewed. They have not. The consent order also establishes a timetable that expires days before the start of the short session at the end of April. This timing is unrealistic and unworkable. If Judge Lee was so concerned about getting lawmakers on board, why were they not included on the front end of the report-writing process?
- Announce WER will be treated as a starting point and not a destination for discussions on how to remedy the state’s constitutional requirements regarding Leandro.
- Request a full independent review of WER. Judge Lee’s uncritical acceptance of WER is troubling. The report failed to include various stakeholders, reflected a bias towards spending and ignored relevant research and practice.
- Undertake a full independent review of current finance and administrative systems for North Carolina Public Schools. Find out what is working, and what is not. Find out how money is being wasted and where money can be saved.
- Review current school choice programs and assess what role school choice has in improving educational outcomes. Understand how the Opportunity Scholarship or private schools can help meet the requirements of Leandro.
- Correct the shortcomings of some of the data used to justify WER recommendations. Use cost-of-living data where appropriate, lengthen time-series to cover full period of Leandro and use data that adjusts for demographic changes in populations.
WER provides a lengthy, expensive and flawed list of recommendations to answer a most important question. Regrettably, the recommendations fail to provide a compelling answer to the question. The recommendations fail to include significant voices, have a bias towards spending and give the courts yet more authority over questions that are inherently political, a stance clearly inconsistent with our constitution and history.
Yes, WER provides a place to start an important discussion. However, the report needs an independent review before any recommendations are considered or formally adopted by legislators. To move forward with the recommendations is to not only move further down a perilous and costly path, but also – and more importantly – have no guarantee that North Carolina will honor its constitutional obligations to provide all students with the opportunity for a sound, basic education.