It was perhaps the N.C. Supreme Court’s finest hour.
In 1997, the high court held unanimously  that North Carolina public school students are entitled under the state constitution to the “opportunity to receive a sound basic education.” In other words, it’s the state’s responsibility to make sure that all children – even those living in communities dogged by poverty – have a fair chance to learn what they need to learn in order to make their way in the world and become productive citizens.
Hard as it may be to believe, here we are 21 years later and the so-called Leandro case that brought the court’s epic ruling is still setting off legal aftershocks.
The state continues to fall short in its duty to bring about the school improvements that would satisfy the court’s standard, judges have ruled.
That hasn’t stopped the State Board of Education – which is supposed to ride herd on the performance of the state’s public schools – from seeking to be spared  of any ongoing responsibility to meet the Leandro requirements.
Fortunately, in the case’s latest development, the judge who’s now in charge of enforcing those requirements has shown he means business. The board won’t be let off the hook, he recently ruled . And his reasons were plain: Despite various stabs over the years at giving economically challenged school districts more help, those districts still can’t show that a sound basic education is reliably within reach for all of their students.
That amounts to a grave indictment of the state’s true level of commitment to solving a problem that haunts its poorer counties and consigns thousands of young people to lives of hardship and struggle. None of us, even in our prosperous cities, can escape the consequences.
A right denied
The Leandro lawsuit, named for Kathleen Leandro, a student’s mother who became the lead plaintiff, was filed by families and officials in five counties (Cumberland, Halifax, Hoke, Robeson and Vance) where inadequate funding clearly was a factor in mediocre student achievement. The state wasn’t allocating enough money to support decent-quality schools, and the hard-pressed counties couldn’t raise enough on their own.
The Supreme Court’s initial ruling was followed in 2004 by another: Not only do students have a right under the state constitution to an education that meets certain standards of quality, but they also in many instances were being deprived of that right. Children at risk of academic failure because of family poverty, limited English proficiency or other disadvantages were especially affected.
The upshot was that state leaders were put on notice that things had to change. Some things did: For example, so-called low-wealth school districts saw their state funding increase. Pre-kindergarten programs for at-risk four-year-olds were expanded. Teachers whose salaries had ranked near the bottom nationally were given modest raises. Under then-Gov. Beverly Perdue, the state landed federal funds to support school improvements through the Obama-era Race to the Top program.
But the headwinds were strong. The Great Recession that hit in 2009 put immense pressure on the state budget. Republicans who took control of the General Assembly in 2011, and of the governor’s office in 2013, had their own ideas about education “reform.” Funding was trimmed so that it failed to keep pace with enrollment growth — while the state began a costly experiment by subsidizing tuition for some students at private schools. All the talk about holding school districts more accountable boiled down to expecting them to do more with less.
Didn’t let go
The Supreme Court had assigned Judge Howard Manning Jr. of Wake County Superior Court to track the state’s compliance with the Leandro rulings. It was a daunting task, but Manning grabbed hold of it like a proverbial snapping turtle. He studied, investigated and held regular hearings focused on student performance.
Manning’s last order before he retired, issued in 2015, came in the context of three years of Republican rule in state government that in some ways reflected a skepticism toward the whole concept of public education. It’s fair to say he wasn’t impressed with the pace of school improvements.
A “definite plan of action” was still needed, he said, if the state was to fulfill its duty under Leandro to offer every child the chance to get a sound basic education – defined by the Supreme Court as one allowing students to gain a level of proficiency in subjects such as math, history, geography, physical sciences and civics, and also to succeed either in post-secondary education or the workforce. Other benchmarks set by the court included the presence of “competent, well-trained” teachers and principals, and the availability of enough money to support an effective instructional program.
Superior Court Judge David Lee of Union County, who in 2016 was tapped to succeed Manning, held a hearing of his own in February to consider the State Board of Education’s request to be dropped from the case.
Attorneys for the board argued that with so many changes and (ostensible) reforms in the state’s public education landscape since the Leandro decisions were reached, ongoing complaints about public school inadequacies were “stale” and should be dismissed.
Not too surprisingly, Lee disagreed. In his March 7 order, he said the board had “failed to present convincing evidence that either the impact or effect of these changes and reforms have moved the State nearer to providing children the fundamental right guaranteed by our State Constitution.”
He went on to explain: “In terms of assessing compliance with Leandro, our Supreme Court has recognized that one metric for evaluation is education ‘outputs,’ i.e. test scores. … A review of these outputs reveals an ebb and flow that at no time has demonstrated even remote compliance with the tenets of Leandro.”
The judge reiterated some of Manning’s findings from 2012-14 that had painted a grim picture of student performance. “Additional hard evidence before this court,” he wrote, included the board’s 2015 admission that the demand for new teachers was not being met; “that there were then more schools rated ‘D’ or ‘F’ than can be served;” and that Race to the Top funds had dried up, causing the loss of more than half the personnel assigned to work with low-performing schools.
Yes, Lee acknowledged, the legislature and Congress have made some moves to enhance educational resources (although in North Carolina those moves have largely amounted to giving with one hand while taking with another). However, here’s an observation he didn’t bother to sugarcoat: “The court record is replete with evidence that the Leandro right continues to be denied to hundreds of thousands of North Carolina children.” Ouch!
An emerging bright spot can be credited to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, in office since the beginning of 2017. Cooper has appointed a Commission on Access to Sound, Basic Education that will work with the Leandro parties to come up with a reliable way to move the needle. Success presumably will involve some buy-in from the same Republican legislators who have presided over the wheel-spinning and worse of recent years.
We have to hope, even if there’s not much reason to expect it, that those legislators’ declared focus on better pay for teachers, smaller class sizes and greater reading proficiency is backed with a real determination to solve the state’s teacher supply problem and to meet the schools’ financial needs – especially the needs of schools that cope with many students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The N.C. Council of Churches advocates for strong public schools for the overarching reason that they offer young people a dependable path, sometimes the only path, toward successful, rewarding lives. Even if the process has taken more than 20 years, we can be grateful for courts that have put muscle behind the state constitution’s guarantee of access to public schooling.
As then-Chief Justice Burley Mitchell wrote for the Supreme Court in 1997, “An education that does not serve the purpose of preparing students to participate and compete in the society in which they live and work is devoid of substance and is constitutionally inadequate.” North Carolina’s path forward as a state hinges greatly on whether it can rise to the challenge posed by that stark assertion.
Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, is now a Volunteer Program Associate at the North Carolina Council of Churches .