Op-ed: Leandro is simply about giving our students what they deserve

Photo: Will & Deni McIntyre/Getty Images

By Susan Book

February 20, 2024

When I was first introduced to the Leandro Case back in 2019, I thought of it as long and complicated. It didn’t help that my introduction came with over 300 pages of educational analysis in the form of the West Ed report commissioned by a Superior Court judge. All I knew was it was a court case originating in rural eastern North Carolina involving decades upon decades of court hearings and rulings that seemed far from my own kitchen table. Yet now everytime I drop off my son at his middle school, I think about the meaning of the case and my son’s future.

The case in its essence isn’t that complicated. The essence of the case is the essence of the fight for a fully funded public school.  A fight many of us are well acquainted with even without knowing about the Leandro Case. The state is failing year after year to provide enough funds for our public schools. It’s failing to allocate that money to the students and areas that need the most assistance. The case simply says that it is the state of North Carolina’s responsibility to fix the problem.

The evidence for the lack of students getting a sound basic education is in the day-to-day life of our North Carolina public school children. Families not having consistent transportation to and from school is one of the most common issues right now for public schools. Paying bus drivers a competitive wage seems like a simple solution, but the state refuses to really invest in our bus drivers, let alone the mechanics and bus monitors needed to make sure our children get to school safely. 

Retention and recruitment are issues that every county struggles to achieve. We have counties offering incentives with bonus pay, raises, supplemental pay, and recognition of Masters degrees. When one large wealthy county offers something it can have a ripple effect in the region. The problem is this competition isn’t helping all students because our low wealth counties can’t even begin to participate. It’s even causing chaos in counties like Durham, where the rush to provide better pay through higher supplements at the local level lead to mismanagement and broken promises.  

Our teacher pay in comparison with even other southern states is an embarrassment. The fact that our most experienced teachers’ salaries plateau and rarely get the attention of lawmakers is a reflection of how little we value educators in this state. Teachers don’t work in a bubble and we need an army of instructional assistants to make our system work.  Yet we pay our instructional assistants low wages and don’t provide enough of them to assist our classrooms. When money gets tight in local budgets, they are often the first folks to be dismissed. This is felt deeply by our young ones who need shoes tied, a helping hand, and sometimes a reading partner.

For students with disabilities, the case against the state is solid and growing everyday. The real truth is an investigation found schools in North Carolina are suspending and expelling students with disabilities, per capita, more than any other state in the country. It’s not necessarily a matter of behavior, but more a reflection of the lack of services our children receive. Policies at the state level have left disability students with an outdated funding model and not enough funds to fully resource special education programs.  With teacher turnover and lack of enough instructional assistants, it’s no wonder some of our most vulnerable students stumble.  

If you’re a parent of a public school kid, you’ve gotten the call for tissues, wipes, and even paper. The state doesn’t provide enough funds per student to provide very basic supplies. Massive school supply drives are held statewide as a kickoff to back to school week. Supply lists are sent out and parents frantically try to buy school supplies for their kids. During the year, those supplies get used and public school parents are asked to send boxes of supplies as needed. In Wake County, a school supply store called Tools4Schools is run by a non-profit to fill the need left by the state. None of this should be necessary. Teachers and parents should not be responsible for basic school supplies when the state is perfectly capable.

From teacher pay to basic school supplies, our state’s failure to provide a sound basic education has left our counties and our individual families struggling to make up for the void. For many, the Leandro Case might feel too complicated, but for students in public schools, it touches their daily lives. Without resources and good policy, our students struggle to get their basic needs met. It touches every county and the failures hurt our most vulnerable students the most. This is the essence of the Leandro Case. The case will go on in the courts, but our state—our legislature—can solve the issue now. They can release more funds to our schools and provide for teachers, staff, and students the needed resources for a sound basic education. It really is that simple.

Author

  • Susan Book

    Susan Book is a public school advocate and is a co-administrator for Save Our Schools NC. She is the co-host of the podcast Advocacy Bites. She currently works with the Every Child Coalition. Susan is also an avid writer, blogger, and speaker on issues like education and Disability Rights. First and foremost she’s a public school parent to an autistic son and fights for him and others like him to get a sound basic education.

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