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A Brief History on Public Education in North Carolina

From Early Roots to Modern Challenges



The North Carolina Education Building, located in Raleigh, was constructed in the mid-20th century as part of the state's commitment to advancing public education. Serving as the headquarters for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, the building has played a crucial role in shaping educational policies and initiatives, reflecting the state's ongoing dedication to fostering academic excellence.


By Joshua Peters

The history of public education in North Carolina dates back to the early 19th century. Prior to the establishment of a formal public education system, education in the state was primarily conducted through private tutors and small, community-supported schools. These early efforts were often inconsistent and limited to those who could afford the fees associated with private instruction.

The Common School Movement

The push for a more structured public education system began to gain momentum in the 1830s, influenced by the broader Common School Movement that was sweeping the United States. This movement advocated for free, publicly funded schools that were accessible to all children, regardless of their socio-economic status. A significant figure in this movement was Archibald D. Murphey, a state senator who was an early advocate for public education in North Carolina. Murphey's proposals in the early 19th century laid the groundwork for the establishment of a public school system in the state.

In 1839, North Carolina took a significant step forward with the establishment of the state's first public school law. This law created a framework for the development of public schools across the state, funded through a combination of state and local taxes. The state also appointed a Superintendent of Common Schools to oversee the system, marking the beginning of a more organized approach to education. Calvin H. Wiley was appointed as the first Superintendent of Common Schools in 1852. Wiley played a crucial role in organizing and promoting public education in North Carolina. He worked tirelessly to improve school facilities, train teachers, and standardize curricula, ensuring that the state's public education system became more effective and widespread.

Post-Civil War Developments

The Civil War and its aftermath brought significant challenges to the public education system in North Carolina. The state's economy was devastated, and resources for education were scarce. Despite these difficulties, efforts to rebuild and expand the public school system continued. In 1868, a new state constitution was adopted, which included provisions for the establishment of a uniform system of public schools.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw significant progress in the expansion and improvement of public education in North Carolina. The state began to invest more heavily in education, building new schools, improving teacher training, and standardizing curricula. The establishment of the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction in 1852 provided further support and oversight for the growing public school system. A pivotal figure during this time was Charles B. Aycock, who served as Governor of North Carolina from 1901 to 1905. Aycock was a passionate advocate for public education, championing the construction of new schools and the improvement of educational standards. His efforts earned him the nickname "The Education Governor," as he significantly advanced the state's commitment to education.

The Civil Rights Era and Beyond

The mid-20th century brought significant changes to public education in North Carolina, particularly in the context of the Civil Rights Movement. The landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954, which declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional, had a profound impact on the state. North Carolina, like many Southern states, faced significant resistance to desegregation. However, over time, efforts to integrate schools progressed, leading to a more inclusive education system.
Julius L. Chambers, a prominent civil rights attorney from North Carolina, played a critical role in the fight for school desegregation. His legal work helped to dismantle segregation policies and promote equality in education. Chambers' efforts were instrumental in ensuring that public schools in North Carolina became more accessible and fair for all students.

The latter half of the 20th century and the early 21st century saw continued efforts to improve the quality of education in North Carolina. Statewide initiatives focused on increasing funding, reducing class sizes, and implementing more rigorous academic standards. Programs aimed at supporting disadvantaged students and addressing educational disparities also became a priority.

The Leandro Case

The Leandro case, formally known as Leandro v. State of North Carolina, began in 1994 when parents, students, and school districts from five low-wealth counties—Hoke, Halifax, Robeson, Vance, and Cumberland—filed a lawsuit against the state. The plaintiffs argued that the state was not providing adequate funding for public education, thus failing to meet the constitutional mandate to ensure a sound basic education for every child. The case is named after one of the original plaintiffs, Robb Leandro, a high school student at the time.

In 1997, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the state constitution guarantees every child the right to a "sound basic education" and that the state must take responsibility for providing it. The court's decision emphasized that all children, regardless of their economic circumstances, are entitled to the opportunity to receive an education that prepares them to be functioning members of society.

The Leandro case had a profound impact on the education system in North Carolina. The court's ruling led to the establishment of measures aimed at addressing educational disparities across the state. Key initiatives included increased funding for low-wealth districts, improved teacher training, and enhanced early childhood education programs.

In 2004, the North Carolina Supreme Court further ruled in Leandro II that the state had failed to provide the necessary resources to ensure a sound basic education for all students. This ruling required the state to take specific actions, such as increasing funding for disadvantaged and at-risk students, implementing early childhood education programs including the expansion of the NC Pre-K program, and enhancing teacher recruitment, retention, and training efforts.
Despite these efforts, subsequent assessments and reports indicated that many of the required changes were either inadequately implemented or insufficient to bridge the educational gaps. In 2019, the WestEd report highlighted ongoing deficiencies, noting that North Carolina needed to invest an additional $8 billion over eight years to meet the constitutional requirements.

The debate surrounding the Leandro case continues to this day. In recent years, the issue has gained renewed attention as educational disparities persist, and many schools, particularly in low-wealth areas, struggle with inadequate resources. The North Carolina Supreme Court's rulings have highlighted systemic issues that require long-term solutions and sustained commitment from the state.

In 2021, Judge David Lee, overseeing the case, approved a comprehensive remedial plan developed by independent consultants. This plan outlined specific actions and funding levels needed to ensure compliance with the Leandro ruling. Key components of the plan included increasing teacher pay to the national average by 2028, expanding the NC Pre-K program to serve 75% of eligible four-year-olds, providing additional funding for economically disadvantaged students, enhancing support for students with disabilities and English language learners, and investing in school facilities and technology.

The total cost of the plan was estimated at $5.6 billion over eight years. However, implementing this plan has faced significant political and financial challenges. The state legislature and the governor have clashed over budget allocations and the prioritization of educational spending, leading to ongoing legal and political disputes.

Current Challenges in North Carolina Public Education

One of the most contentious issues in North Carolina's public education system is the debate over critical race theory (CRT). This theoretical framework, which examines the intersection of race and law, has sparked significant controversy. Critics argue that CRT promotes a divisive view of history and society, while proponents assert that it is essential for understanding systemic inequalities. In 2021, North Carolina lawmakers introduced House Bill 324 to restrict CRT teachings in public schools, but it was vetoed by Governor Roy Cooper, reflecting ongoing political and social divides.

School violence remains a critical issue in North Carolina. The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction reported 11,170 incidents of crime and violence in the 2019-2020 school year, including assaults, weapon possession, and drug-related offenses.

Teacher pay continues to be a significant challenge. North Carolina ranks 33rd in the nation for average teacher salary, with an average annual pay of $54,392, which is below the national average of $65,090. Despite recent budget increases that provided an average 5% pay raise for teachers, many educators feel this is insufficient given the rising cost of living and the demands of the profession.

Relatively high administrative costs are another critical issue affecting North Carolina's public education system. Critics argue that excessive spending on administrative costs diverts funds from direct educational needs. A report by the John Locke Foundation found that North Carolina spends approximately $1,400 per student on administrative costs, compared to the national average of $1,200.

North Carolina continues to face challenges with academic performance. According to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction's 2019-2020 Accountability Report, only 37% of students achieved grade-level proficiency in reading and math. Additionally, while the state's graduation rate has improved to 87%, it still lags behind the national average.

Bright Prospects for the Future of Public Education

Despite the challenges, the horizon looks positive for North Carolina public education. Recent investments and policy changes are paving the way for improvements. For instance, the state budget for 2021-2022 allocated nearly $10.6 billion for K-12 education and an additional $1.5 billion in overall education funding, including significant increases in teacher pay and funding for disadvantaged students. The expansion of the NC Pre-K program now serves a higher percentage of eligible four-year-olds, and new safety initiatives and mental health programs aim to reduce school violence and support student well-being. With continued commitment and strategic investments, North Carolina is on a promising path to providing a high-quality education for all its students.

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