By Sohan Gade ’23, Staff Writer
As Robb Leandro was growing up in rural North Carolina, he began to notice stark differences between schools. “My first exposure to [the differences] was how disadvantaged households [were] in low wealth counties,” Leandro said. “We didn’t have the same resources. I visited other schools to play sports and I would say [that you could] see it with your own eyes.”
The current disparities in the state’s education system are part of a long-standing legacy of inequity. The North Carolina State Constitution guarantees all students the constitutional right to education; however, in the 1994 case Leandro v. North Carolina, the NC Supreme Court ruled that the system was not providing all of its students this constitutional right to an education.
For months, the United States has seen rising COVID-19 cases that disparately impacted communities along the lines of race and socioeconomic status. However, these disparities do not end in the healthcare system. In North Carolina, many minority students attend public schools that lack basic resources and struggle to meet achievement standards, while teachers face immense personal burdens. Now, the pandemic brings new challenges that further threaten a child’s constitutional right to education.
Leandro, the plaintiff in the landmark case, has advocated for improvements to increase equity in the state’s education system for over 20 years. He said that when he was growing up, his town only had one high school. “There were no opportunities or choices, and I think that can lead to some kids getting lost. I don’t think there’s always a one size fits all,” he said.
“I was asked to be the plaintiff for this case,” Leandro explained, “because the kids in Hoke county, Halifax County, Ross County — they matter.” Leandro directly attributes the lack of opportunities for students living in rural counties to the state’s failure to meet its constitutional promise of education for all.
“North Carolina has for decades failed to meet its constitutional obligation to our students. Many of these issues of equity may be highlighted by the pandemic, but they have not arisen because of the pandemic,” said Laura Collins ’21, who interned with the Education and Law Project at the NC Justice Center this summer. “The lack of adequate and equitable funding has been present long before COVID-19.”
As the state’s urban centers grew over the last decade, divisions based on race and socioeconomic status intensified. While the Charlotte Metropolitan Area and the state of North Carolina overall have grown in recent years, stark racial and economic inequities persist, especially in the education system.
Last year, research by Davidson students Paige Johnson ’23, Carter Cook ’20, Bryce Kalsu ’22, and Henry Koehler ’23 examined the disparities in educational achievement in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School (CMS) district for Dr. Che Smith’s class, CSC 110: Data Science and Society. With help from Dr. Smith and data from UNC Charlotte, the group found that Ardrey Kell, Providence, and Hough High Schools had the highest performance in the (CMS) district.
On the other end, they found that West Charlotte, Garinger, and Harding University High Schools had the lowest academic performance in the district. In the Charlotte Metro area, race and income are inextricably linked. Their research found that the three lowest-performing high schools all had a majority-minority student body, while the three best-performing schools were majority white.
It is no coincidence that the best-performing public high schools are in the wealthiest ZIP codes, according to the researchers. Ardrey Kell, Providence, and Hough are all located within the highest income areas of Charlotte.
“I had first become interested in education disparities, specifically in Charlotte, when taking a course called Data and Education in 2018,” Carter Cook ‘20 said. “I had an opportunity to expand on my research in this topic in the course Data Science and Society with the help of Dr. Smith and my classmates. Together, we pulled North Carolina public school data and were able to find wide disparities in CMS schools starting in elementary school and continuing through high school.”
Further commenting on the project, Dr. Smith said, “[The data dashboard] provided important context that helped to explain why these gaps exist and persist, and how difficult they will be to close without taking into account the long-standing impact of systemic racism that transcends the education system.”
The pandemic poses unprecedented challenges to parents, students, teachers, and administrators. Due to the sharp increase in new cases across the state, most schools will offer remote options and will partially operate online. Remote instruction jeopardizes the constitutional right to education due to factors such as access to Wi-Fi and proper technology.
The pandemic has deepened inequities, according to Dr. Lauren Fox, the Senior Director of Policy at the Public School Forum of NC. “The children that don’t have access to broadband are the ones that were already disadvantaged in other ways,” Dr. Fox said.
Face-to-face interaction, hands-on learning, and strong student-teacher relationships are key components of a quality education, according to Dr. Fox. She says this mounts a significant burden on schools and teachers to deliver “quality education” to all of their students remotely.
Educators across the state are facing a host of challenges as the school year starts. Rhonda Cheek, the District 1 representative of the CMS school district said, “This year, our biggest challenge is ensuring academic growth in uncertain times: with remote learning.”
Dr. Fox also called for a greater allocation of funding across the board, especially with teacher pay, a long-standing issue in North Carolina. “We have massive teacher shortages,” Dr. Fox said. “Teachers are working incredibly hard, especially now, and are getting paid very little for it.”
Dr. Fox also said that the pandemic has posed a new financial challenge for school districts and induced a state-wide economic recession. While these inequities would point to a severe lack of funding, Dr. Fox said that “it is hard to argue for that funding when you’re in the middle of a recession.”
In addition to economic disparities, the inequities found in the state’s education system are deeply linked to a system of ongoing racism. The school-to-prison pipeline and over-policing in schools are just two examples of how racism manifests within North Carolina’s education system, according to Dr. Fox. Through the school-to-prison pipeline, schools over-discipline BIPOC students and fail to offer them support they need to succeed.
Matt Ellinwood heads the Education & Law Project at the NC Justice Center. The NC Justice Center is part of a coalition called Communities for Every Child NC, which advocates for reducing the disparities and ensuring the state is providing its students with the constitutional right to education.
“When [teachers] first put School Resource Officers (SROs) in school, [teachers] will call them and deal with just regular incidents of misbehavior and don’t realize that what they just did is called 911,” Ellinwood said. SROs are essentially police officers deployed in schools.
According to Ellinwood, SROs negatively impact schools that already lack “enough nurses, counselors, therapists, school psychologists. Racial bias and racial profiling inherently accompany discipline systems, and this trend is especially apparent in contexts where resources are scarce.”
In 2018, a North Carolina judge ordered a consultant, WestEd, to outline recommendations on how the state could reflect on the Leandro case and uphold the constitutional right to education. Earlier this year, more than 20 years after the initial Leandro proceedings, the court ordered an official action plan for the state. Across the state, parents are advocating for equitable access to a proper education for their children.
This year represents a crucial year and potential turning point for the country to address systemic issues. With ingrained systems of racism and added challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic, the North Carolina education system has a long road ahead. Yet, Leandro remains hopeful.
“I think we’re finally at a place where people are acknowledging the issue of systemic racism in our society. I think that leads you naturally to just advocating for opportunities for all kinds of people in our society and making our society more equal,” Leandro said.