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Published in Print: April 4, 2001, as N.C. Ordered To Meet At-Risk Students' Needs

N.C. Ordered To Meet At-Risk Students' Needs

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North Carolina must address its failure to meet the academic needs of at-risk students by formulating a "strategic" and "comprehensive" plan for providing the sound basic education guaranteed under the state constitution, a judge ruled last week in the state's 7-year-old school finance case.

Doing so, however, will not necessarily require more money, the judge concluded. Instead, he suggested, funds could be diverted from upper-level academic programs, administrative costs, and other "frills and whistles" that generally benefit wealthy school districts and students who are not at risk of failing.

"The huge sums of money that the state of North Carolina channels into each [district] are not being strategically and logically directed," the judge wrote. "While there is no restriction on high-level electives, modern dance, advanced computer courses, and multiple foreign-language courses being taught or paid for by tax dollars in the public schools, the constitutional guarantee of a sound basic education for each child must first be met."

In the decision, the third installment of his three-part ruling in the case, Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard E. Manning Jr. said state education officials and lawmakers, "initially at least," could decide how best to reallocate education money to better serve disadvantaged students. The judge ordered state officials to submit a final plan within 12 months for complying with the March 26 ruling.

In the meantime, it remained unclear last week whether the ruling would be appealed by the state, the plaintiffs, or the urban districts that joined the case but have not yet had their day in court.

A Victory?

Plaintiffs in Hoke County v. N.C. State Board of Education, as well as advocacy groups, called the ruling a victory for poor children. State officials, who have repeatedly argued that they have been working toward improving schooling for students deemed at risk of academic failure, agreed with the court's opinion that such students deserve more.

But the ruling raises concerns, the officials said, that established academic programs could be raided to pay for the plan.

"It does beg districts to scrutinize every time they have a choice between buying a trumpet or a textbook," state schools Superintendent Michael E. Ward said. "That has significant potential to pit community segments against one another. It's a robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul scenario."

Mr. Ward cited the state's intense focus on at-risk students in recent years, which he said has led to improved test scores for all students, though achievement still lags in schools serving many minority and poor children.

Some observers were even more critical of Judge Manning's proposal. The Public School Forum of North Carolina, a nonprofit research organization in Raleigh, called the ruling an "educational nightmare." While the judge's decision gives a strong endorsement for focusing more resources on the students who need them most, his proposed solution is misguided, according to the forum's executive director, John N. Dornan.

"To argue that advanced electives and foreign-language programs are frills and whistles in a state that is working on improving students at both the at-risk end of the spectrum and the top end of the spectrum, I find amazing," Mr. Dornan said.

Some plaintiffs also disagreed with the judge's assertion that the existing money is sufficient.

"The issue was that there wasn't enough money to begin with," said Carolyn L. Olivarez, the finance director for the Hoke County schools, a 6,200-student district in rural Raeford, N.C., which was chosen to represent the five low-wealth districts that originally brought the case in 1994.

In a recent survey of school spending by each of the state's 117 districts, the Public School Forum rated the Hoke County district as the poorest, based on tax revenue. Despite its high poverty rate, however, the county is among the top three statewide in the proportion of its revenue spent on schools. "There's really not much more that we can request from the county," Ms. Olivarez said.

No Palace

Ms. Olivarez said Hoke County school officials could "write the book on pooling resources and maximizing funding dollars."

Her district does not boast the kind of "palatial central offices" that the judge cited as existing in some districts in the state, she said. Moreover, gifted students do not have pullout programs, and students have only limited choices for elective courses.

"It is not simply a matter of reshuffling resources. There still needs to be more money here," Ms. Olivarez said.

But more money has not made the difference for many at-risk students, Judge Manning maintained in his ruling. The 107,000-student Charlotte- Mecklenberg school district, for example, spends about $32,000 more per classroom than Hoke County. Yet at-risk students in the urban district are not, on the whole, more successful, the judge said.

"If the amount of money spent per average classroom was a factor that made a difference in student performance, one would expect [Charlotte-Mecklenberg's] students to be light- years ahead of the [Hoke County] students," the judge wrote.

Observers predict the state's response to the new ruling will inevitably include more money for districts with the greatest needs. In an earlier installment in the case, Judge Manning ruled that prekindergarten programs must be provided for at- risk 4-year-olds; that mandate alone would require significantly more money. ("N.C. Judge Backs Suit By Districts," Nov. 1, 2000.)

But the judge said that money alone would not be enough. "Throwing money, either local or state, at the problem without strategic and effective planning accompanied by accountability for results will not be acceptable," he declared in last week's ruling.

Vol. 20, Issue 29, Pages 21,25

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