As you are probably aware, the Leandro case is going to be in the spotlight again later this month. To remind you, “Leandro” is the name given to a lawsuit filed in 1994 in North Carolina by parents who claimed that the Constitution of the State of North Carolina requires equality of educational opportunity for all K-12 students, including appropriate funding of schools.
The lawsuit argued that the state legislature was under-funding the state’s K-12 schools. In 1997, the N.C. Supreme Court declared that every N.C. student had a constitutional right to a sound basic education, and state funding should recognize that.
The legislature objected to the finding, taking the position that setting state budgets was their job, and that at root this was not about funding schools, but about separation of powers.
The case went through several appeals, and along the way a plan was developed to distribute funding if the legislature lost the legal brawl. In 2020, the plan was adopted by the court, but the legislature once again refused to comply, and filed another appeal in 2021. In 2022 another decision by the N.C. Supreme Court again mandated funding, and in 2023 the legislators appealed yet again. [i] Oral arguments before the N.C. Supreme Court for this latest appeal are scheduled to occur on February 22, 2024, thirty years after the original filing.
The good news is that if the court decides to enforce the Leandro ruling, according to a 2022 report by EveryChildNC [ii], each North Carolina school system will receive around an additional $2,300 per student per year.
The bad news is that none of this money can be spent on constructing or repairing school buildings. [iii]
This has some powerful but almost invisible effects. Let me explain this using an analogy. An important part of North Carolina history is automobile racing. What if Dale Earnhardt, the counterpart to a school principal or superintendent, was given a bigger budget for teaching his crew and increasing their pay – but in every race he entered, his cars had soft tires without enough air. Of course, he would lose.
Unless the General Assembly pays attention to this issue, that is the situation our teachers are in, regardless of how Leandro is decided, because low quality inside air slows student learning.
Half of all N.C. schools lack quality inside air. Many of them were built before the state required new schools to bring outside air into classrooms, and most of these buildings have never been upgraded. And, again due to inadequate funding, a surprising number of buildings constructed to meet the modern building code have broken or poorly maintained air conditioning systems. So, the learning environment in these schools is still harming students.
There is no state requirement that schools' indoor environments be surveyed - even for things like lead in school drinking water, or radon gas.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly half of the educators and students working and learning in school buildings are breathing air polluted by lack of sufficient oxygen, high Carbon Dioxide, and undesirable bacteria, chemicals, viruses, and pesticides.[iv]
The indoor air in these buildings prevents essential learning, which damages a child's future. [v]
One indicator of the likelihood that a building lowers learning is the era during which it was occupied for the first time.
Members of our team rank ordered all North Carolina schools teaching grades 9-12 by their North Carolina School Performance Score, a state-compiled measure of student academic success. [vi] The top ten performing grades 9-12 schools had an average performance score of 90.6, and an average school building age of 17.4 years. The bottom ten performing schools had an average performance score of 41.6, and building age of 55.6 years.
Do you see how ‘flat tires’ in an educational context hurt students? Dale Earnhardt would not tolerate it.
The fundamental flaw in North Carolina School policy is that school buildings are paid for by local taxes – and wealthier school districts have modern buildings re-designed to bring in fresh outside air. The buildings in older rural and low-income school districts do not have the ability to bring in fresh air, and the kids living in those school districts are having the trajectory of their entire life impacted negatively.
Some members of society believe that this continuation of low learning rates is the result of poor parenting, student laziness, poor teaching or incompetent school administrators.
While there is no doubt some of those factors contribute to learning issues, they become more true when the student sits in a desk surrounded by poor air quality that lowers brain functioning one or two letter grades and creates asthma, allergies, and high absenteeism.
Our state legislators could implement an apparent solution: dedicate some of the state’s budget surplus to upgrading schools in less affluent districts, to provide equally healthy learning environments for all kids in North Carolina. They do not need to wait until they win or lose a 30 year battle about "separation of powers" - they can exercise the right they have been claiming for 30 years, improve the learning of half the kids in the state considerably, and create a better workforce for our state economy.
We are seeking half-a-dozen School Board Members and members of Parents Organizations to call join us for a coaching meeting. We are trying to meet the needs of many groups and could benefit from some honest statements about what kind of information we could furnish that would help you achieve your goals. What do you like that we are doing, and what is a waste of time for both of us? We would very much appreciate it if you were willing to coach us. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will try to schedule a brief conversation/feedback session at your convenience.
After our last newsletter, published on February 6, about the value of shade trees on school grounds, two of our readers reached out with success stories. See the image and story below.
One of the success stories was the Energy Saving Trees Campaign implemented by the City of Concord, N.C., in partnership with Arbor Day Foundation, which has given away almost 1,000 trees in the past 5 years. This program also makes available an on-line mapping tool to help educate interested parties as to the location in the city which would result in the most benefit. You can see it at https://energysavingtrees.arborday.org/?PartnerCode=07745#Home
Arbor Day Foundation is looking for more partners – hint, hint. www.arbordayest.org
The Penn State Agricultural Extension service has a great article about both the benefits of planting trees on school grounds, and the powerful impact such projects had on the student learning. You can see it here: https://extension.psu.edu/why-schools-should-plant-trees#:~:text=Decades%20of%20research%20show%20that,critical%20to%20prioritize%20for%20children.
And a major provider of poultry to North Carolina markets, Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation, has a major operation based in Marshville, N.C. They run a philanthropic program to enable students to plant trees around schools, and publish a website with a lot of useful information: https://sustainability.pilgrims.com/our-stories/community/tree-planting-with-local-elementary-schools/index.html.
Written in 2015, this was my first attempt at celebrating successful actions taken by K-12 schools. Although the data is now outdated, the 22 concepts in this book are still valid, and worth a read. The website above will continue to add to that library - look on the right side for more recent role model stories.
We are living in an era when many Americans feel things are out of their control, which causes them frustration, anger, and depression. This book explains the theory and practice of how to influence the direction and growth of your local economy, and regain your power to protect your community and family. First published in 2016, the lessons remain accurate and powerful.
As a country, we are not without solutions. This collection, first published in 2013, takes a country-wide locally solvable view of significant issues which still exist, and in may ways have gotten worse since I first wrote about them. You, can solve these problems by imitating the behavior of the pioneer efforts cited here.
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Francis P. Koster Ed.D.
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