In 1994, five counties in North Carolina serving predominantly students of color and students from low-income families filed a lawsuit (Leandro vs. State of North Carolina) arguing that the state wasn’t giving districts the money they needed to provide an equal and quality education to their students. The North Carolina Supreme Court has since ruled three times—in 1997, 2004 and in 2021—that the state’s students are not receiving a “sound basic education.” We recently sat down with two participants from the North Carolina Racial Equity and Social Impact in Education Community of Practice, Vichi Jagannathan and Natalie English—both with roots in Eastern North Carolina. Vichi serves as Co-founder of Rural Opportunity Institute and Natalie English is a native North Carolinian with experience across three school systems as a student, advocate and parent. Rural Opportunity Institute (ROI) is a nonprofit organization that strives to end generational cycles of trauma and poverty by preventing adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and toxic stress for the community in Edgecombe County, North Carolina. These two North Carolinians reflected on how the state’s school funding system has impacted them personally and their communities.
EDUCATION FIRST: Natalie, you grew up in Halifax County, one of the original plaintiffs in the Leandro case. Were you aware this was happening in your own community?
NATALIE: When I was growing up, I didn’t get it at all. It’s been in hindsight for me to look back at the way our school systems in Halifax County were set up and continue to be to this day even though there was legislation in the late 1980s/early 1990s that strongly encouraged mergers of school systems across the state from a funding perspective. In Roanoke Rapids, leaders said nope we’re not doing it. I don’t know the motivation, but in hindsight, there was such a clear delineation on race in the way our school system lines were drawn. It pains me to say that out loud, and it’s an assumption so I’ll leave it at that. In the Roanoke Rapids School District that I grew up in, we had everything we needed. We had great band uniforms. We had great grass on our football fields. When we would play football or basketball against other local schools, I remember the facilities not being as nice as ours.
NOTE: Halifax County, which serves over 8,000 students, is split up into three districts: Halifax County Public Schools (HCPS), Weldon City Schools (WCS) and Roanoke Rapids Graded School District (RRGSD). According to a report by the UNC Center for Civil Rights, although the county overall is only 39 percent White, HCPS and WCS are both almost 100 percent non-White, while RRGSD is over 70 percent White.
EDUCATION FIRST: How did you see this impact your own personal trajectory?
NATALIE: I have a pretty large extended family in Halifax County also. My father had four sisters and three brothers. They all had lots of kids. Of my father and his siblings’ kids, only those of us who went to RRGSD were encouraged to go off to school. The example I have is seeing my extended family members get a substandard education and to not be encouraged to go to postsecondary in the way we were.
EDUCATION FIRST: Vichi, before you cofounded ROI you taught in Northampton County, another rural county in Eastern North Carolina which neighbors Halifax County. How aware were you of the Leandro case when you taught in 2011?
VICHI: We had a regional orientation at the start of Teach For America (TFS). At that orientation, we watched a video of Judge Manning and we also had to read something that was all about Leandro. So I was very aware of it. However, what was hard to understand in a new job and new place is tangibly what it meant. I remember thinking, ‘Okay. You’re confirming for me that inequities exist. That’s helpful context.’ I’m going to teach day-to-day, but I wasn’t making the connection that many of the challenges we are seeing on a daily basis may be due to school funding.
EDUCATION FIRST: In retrospect, how might a fully funded plan to provide a “sound basic education” have impacted your time in the classroom?
VICHI: In so many ways, I’m sure. It’s not that resources are the answer to everything, but to not even have that is such a bare minimum thing. For example, I taught four different science classes: Earth Science, Biology, Physics and AP Biology at the same time. I don’t know if that’s necessarily because of funding, but I’m guessing that had something to do with it. As a result, not only is that difficult for me, but I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that I didn’t teach all those classes well. It’s not even possible. My students still didn’t have geometry. They didn’t have English IV. They didn’t have chemistry for a year. There were so many critical vacancies. And at some point, you have to say that if our system was funded to pay teachers more, then you would get someone in that seat. That’s obvious to me.
EDUCATION FIRST: Vichi, you’re now engaged in community empowerment work in Edgecombe County. How does that work intersect with education as it pertains to people’s abilities to reach their aspirations?
VICHI: When we first started doing this, we asked people to name a guiding star. A theme we heard consistently from a lot of our people is a community that supports healing so that people are in a place where they have self-determination. What folks meant by that was instead of going to systems that provide services one-directionally, we are the architects of the schools and systems that provide services to us. There was just this really strong tone of self-determination, ownership and liberation where it’s less of being at the mercy of whatever it is this system provides to us. We have the flexibility, trust and safety to name what it is we would like to see and be partners in providing that to each other.
We see some examples of that starting to happen. But a lot of times it’s within the constraint of the resources. It becomes way too high risk. There’s no room for mistakes. We know that self-determination and community empowerment aren’t always going to be perfect linear processes. To have enough safety net to take a risk like that, education can’t be resourced the way it is now where it’s on the edge of a cliff at all times. Right now, everything is on a shoestring. To me, resources are not a full solution, but until we can get past that part, we can’t even begin to talk about these other things because everyone is pushed beyond the brink in terms of the resources we have.
EDUCATION FIRST: Natalie, you spent several years working in Charlotte. How did you experience the impact of school funding in a larger, urban school district on the opposite side of the state?
NATALIE: 10-15 years after moving from Halifax County, I found myself in Charlotte. There it was almost the opposite. If you were to separate the school systems in Charlotte, the city school would be majority students of color and the county school system would be majority White. It’s socioeconomic and it’s racial for the most part which is so frustrating to me. It falls on the lines of poverty. Funding those schools at a level that gets schools and students out of poverty is the answer. I still see that dichotomy between those school systems that have access to the resources they need and those that don’t. Everyone deserves to be invested in in the same way my dad was able to invest in me.
I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a former state Senator where I discussed the dichotomy between the schools within Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS). I said, ‘Do you understand we’re leaving half of our students behind? Half of the students in CMS are living in high poverty and are mostly students of color.’ That Senator looked at me and said, “That’s not my problem.” I was mortified. This was several years ago and we were already starting to see the talent drain in our state and the graying of America’s workforce. As Boomers reach retirement age, this is significantly impacting employers, and we need talent prepared to replace those people.
EDUCATION FIRST: Why is it important that state legislators act to provide every student with a “sound-basic education?”
NATALIE: As a parent, I recognize that I have the capacity to make sure my child has access to everything he needs to be successful. Money to buy tutors, schoolbooks, paper and supplies. I have connections to people, money and the ability to advocate. That’s privilege—a bunch of privileges that so many people don’t have.
Talent is the biggest issue facing employers. If we don’t figure out how we can make sure we can employ every human being, we are going to be at a loss in North Carolina. We’re going to start automating to a degree that jobs just go away. Where are the people going to come from? How do we get kids prepared who are living in poverty who don’t have access to a quality education system? The Leandro suit may not be the absolute only right answer, but it’s a huge step in the right direction. I feel strongly that our school systems in North Carolina are not there. We have pockets of success in some communities. But we also have huge pockets of unrealized potential.
VICHI: I think one positive thing is that parents and community members are bought into the school system here. I hear that a lot. I don’t think people have written it off. They believe it still is a pathway toward equity and opportunity. That’s positive. At the same time, people do get the sense that currently as it’s constructed, it’s not a place where you can be certain that all of your growth needs and aspirations will be supported.
A “sound basic education” is the bare minimum. It’s definitely a baseline thing, and unfortunately, we’re not even doing that. You don’t have to spend a lot of time in Eastern North Carolina to realize that there are so many assets. You can see over generations and centuries-long history the greatness that comes from the region. That has often happened despite systems like the school system. There’s so much latent potential. If legislators and systems leaders want to play a role, then be supportive and help unlock some of that potential quicker, faster and easier with less pain and effort. It’s the least we can do to contribute to and experience a more holistic statewide level of achievement. I don’t understand why you would want to get in the way of potential. To me, to do these types of things, we need to get out of the way and allow communities and kids to be great.
We greatly appreciated the opportunity to connect with Natalie and Vichi, and their reflections resonated with what we are hearing in the field about the importance of meeting the minimum bar to provide North Carolina’s students with a “sound basic education.” We see this as a critical time—especially in light of the academic acceleration and social-emotional needs stemming from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic—for North Carolina to fully fund the state’s Leandro plan and constitutional obligation.
This is part three of a three-part blog series based on our work with the North Carolina Racial Equity and Social Impact Community of Practice. Education First worked closely with Gita Gulati-Partee, Founder & Principal of OpenSource Leadership Strategies, on this engagement and this project was sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and the Conway Family Fund. Click to read part 1 and part 2.