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Putting the Investments Needed to Uphold Children’s Education Rights in Context

by | Feb 22, 2024 | Education, North Carolina | 1 comment

Note: I thought Kris Nordstrom’s article from NC Newsline was worth republishing because we so seldom look at the big numbers of government budgets in context. I think Kris’s insights mirror the concerns I raised in my post, Education Stars of 2034? It Won’t Be the Children of North Carolina.

by Kris Nordstrom, NC Newsline
February 21, 2024

Public education is a policy area rife with big numbers. North Carolina schools serve more than 1.5 million students in about 2,700 schools. Education policy debates necessarily involve large numbers that must be put into context.

Humans are famously terrible at putting large numbers into context. Once we start talking about millions and billions, people have a difficult time conceiving the differences even when the disparities are massive. 

For example, most Americans vastly overestimate how much we spend on foreign aid. A majority thinks at least a quarter of our federal budget is spent on foreign aid. When they learn that foreign aid actually comprises less than 1 percent of the federal budget, the share of folks who think we spend “too much” on foreign aid drops in half.

For the past thirty years, the biggest debate in education policy in North Carolina has centered on whether the state is meeting its constitutional obligation to provide its 1.5 million students with access to quality schools. Throughout the 30-year Leandro case, the courts have consistently found that state leaders are failing to meet this basic duty. The remedies require confronting large numbers.

A recent WRAL story details how legislative leaders are trying to shirk their constitutional duties. But in describing the Leandro Plan as calling “for $5 billion more,” many readers were undoubtedly left confused as to what those large, out-of-context numbers mean. 

As the example with foreign aid shows, many folks – when confronted with a big number – assume the worst. So let’s add some context to show how the plan is both readily affordable and something that will provide meaningful benefits to local schools.

Legislators have passed laws to dramatically slash state taxes over the coming years. Planned tax cuts are estimated to drain $13.7 billion from state coffers when fully phased in. That is, planned tax cuts – which primarily benefit corporations and wealthy North Carolinians – are 2.7 times bigger than the Leandro Plan.

Other states also provide context. North Carolina dedicates just 2.4 percent of its GDP to spending on public schools, putting our funding effort below every state except for Arizona. The Leandro Plan would boost our K-12 school spending to just below 3 percent of our GDP, moving our school funding effort ranking from 49th to just 42nd.

In other words, the Leandro Plan could be afforded by simply foregoing a portion of planned tax cuts. It would leave school spending well below the national average. This context provides readers a much more accurate understanding of the plan’s feasibility than when the plan is described in large dollar amounts without context.

That said, $5 billion is still a big number. Those dollars will allow our public schools to better support all students, particularly the students of color and students from families with low incomes who have paid the biggest price for state leaders’ decades-long under-resourcing of public schools. The Leandro Plan will would do all of the following:

Eliminate the waitlist for child care subsidy;Provide a high-quality NC Pre-K slot for all eligible four-year-olds;Increase the number of classroom teachers by 14 percent;Add nearly 8,000 teacher assistants, reversing a decade’s worth of cuts that have coincided with declining early-grade reading scores;Staff school nurses, psychologists, social workers, and counselors at industry-recommended levels;Dramatically increase funding and supports for students with disabilities; Restore funding for teacher training, textbooks, and school supplies; andPass a statewide school construction bond to make our schools healthier and safer for learning.

This context is also important. The Leandro Plan has tremendous potential to help more North Carolina children become flourishing adults.

Hopefully, this context will reach the members of the state Supreme Court. A hearing on Leandro is scheduled for February 22nd. It’s important they understand that the Leandro Plan simply represents the gap between what students are currently getting versus what those students are constitutionally owed. The gap is indeed large, but it’s readily affordable. It’s just over a third of the cost of planned tax cuts and would only bring our school funding effort ranking from 49th to 42nd. 

It’s all easier to understand with a little context.

NC Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. NC Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Rob Schofield for questions: Follow NC Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.




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1 Comment

  1. Terry Van Duyn

    Thank you putting Leandro in context. Programs like NC Pre-K and NC Teaching Fellows were created In response to the original Leandro decision. They prepared children for school and trained talented teachers to lead our classrooms, and they worked. We were slowly, but steadily, closing the achievement gap. North Carolina educators know what our students need, we just need to give them the resources so they can do it.


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