A generation later, an original plaintiff in the landmark lawsuit hopes state leaders will finally do their constitutional dutyO ne evening in 1994, the Pender family — Schnika, then 15, and her parents, Clarence and Isabelle, sat down to dinner, when they usually talked about school and discussed events of the day. But this conversation was unlike any other.
The Penders would be joining dozens of plaintiffs in the landmark Leandro lawsuit to demand North Carolina live up to its constitutional obligation to provide children with a sound basic education.
“My dad explained to me what the lawsuit was about — making sure the students of Halifax County had the same resources as students all over North Carolina,” Pender, who was a sophomore at Southeast Halifax High School at the time, says.
Poorer counties, like Halifax, couldn’t raise enough tax revenue to fund their schools. And simply because they lived in low-income neighborhoods, Halifax County students didn’t have the same academic resources and opportunities enjoyed by children in wealthier counties.
“I was good with it, because as a student in Halifax County, I was very grateful for the teachers that I had, but I recognized as I attended educational programs and other activities around the state, that I didn’t have access to the same resources that children from other parts of North Carolina had,” Pender, now 41, says. “I sometimes felt that I was a little behind in some ways.”
Schnika’s father, Clarence Pender, taught in the Halifax County schools. He saw the district’s shortcomings — primarily a result of a lack of funding to educate its students — through the eyes of a teacher as well as a father.
“I didn’t feel like my daughter was getting what she needed from Halifax County Schools,” Clarence, now retired, says. “She was not being challenged and the school was not able to offer her courses that would challenge her.”
Equitable funding and resources are at the heart of the Leandro lawsuit. Kathleen M. Leandro and her son Robert A. Leandro, the family for whom the case is named, sued the state of North Carolina in 1994, along with several families and five low-wealth school districts in Hoke, Halifax, Robeson, Vance and Cumberland counties.
The case has been one of the most discussed policy issues in the state over the last 25 years. The state Supreme Court ruled in 1997 and again in 2004 that North Carolina has a constitutional obligation to provide its children with a sound basic education, which includes access to quality teachers, principals and educational resources.
Last December, the discussion was reignited when WestEd, an independent consultant directed by Superior Court Judge David Lee to examine the mandates of Leandro, shared its findings and recommendations in a long-awaited report.
The report concluded that North Carolina needs to spend several billion dollars over the next several years to honor its constitutional mandate to ensure students are provided an opportunity to receive a “sound basic education.”
These are capable students born into the wrong zip code. As a result, they aren’t getting the quality education needed to thrive academically, or to succeed later in life when they want to attend college, get a job or join the military.
“So, for the benefit of the other kids who had high aspirations and abilities and were not going to be challenged, I joined [the lawsuit] for that reason,” Clarence Pender explained. “There were many kids in Halifax County schools who were able to perform much better than they were performing.”O n the first day of school in 2016, Eric Cunningham was riding a school bus, tracing the trips of Halifax County students. Halifax County is over 700 square miles, and some students spend as much as 90 minutes one-way on bus rides. Cunningham had recently been hired as Halifax County Schools superintendent and he wanted get to know the district better.
“As I’m riding, I see this woman early in the morning and she was at the well drawing water,” Cunningham recalls. “I looked at the driver and I said, It’s great that we’re getting good spring water. He explained that the woman didn’t have running water in her home. I sat down.”
At another stop, Cunningham was shocked to see the door of a student’s home falling off the hinges. “As the little girl ran to me, tears started coming from my eyes,” Cunningham said. “I wasn’t ready for it. I’ll be honest, I didn’t know how I was going to deal with this.”
While shocked that so many of the district’s students live in abject poverty, Cunningham also found comfort in their strength and resilience. “As the tears started coming down my face, the kids started patting me on the back, telling me that I was going to be all right,” Cunningham says.
Halifax County Schools has long been among the lowest-performing in the state. The State Board of Education has been working with the school district since 2009 to improve academic performance after Superior Court Judge Howard Manning, the judge overseeing the Leandro case at the time, called poor end-of-grade test scores “academic genocide.”
In 2015, the SBE took over major operations of the district, citing concerns about the local school board’s handling of school finances. But even with the state’s intervention, five of the district’s 10 schools were deemed low-performing after the 2018-19 school year.
Cunningham says he has had to come to terms with the fact that many negative factors occur in the lives of children the school system cannot control. “I had to figure out how we can build a school system that can act like a flood wall and break some of those waves up that are crashing against our children every day,” Cunningham says.
Cunningham has become what he described as a “non-traditional” superintendent. He’s not able to simply focus on the nuts and bolts of leading a school district. “You’re interacting with social support agencies, leading coat drives and Christmas gift drives,” he says. “You’re doing a lot more to build up student esteem, other than teaching the standards. You’re creating partnerships for dental care and all those other things you know are desperately needed for learning to take place.”
S cotland Neck is about a 40-minute drive from Rocky Mount along U.S. 258 and N.C. 97. Its population of just under 2,000 residents has been in a steady slide since 1970, as its main industries, cut-and-sew operations, textile companies, tobacco and manufacturing, have gone overseas and disappeared.
Those losses have resulted in higher unemployment and lower property tax revenues, which have doubled up to take a toll on the school district’s finances.
Both her parents worked, but her family was far from rich, Schnika Pender says. Still they fared relatively well in comparison with many Halifax County families. Kids from poor families were sometimes bullied and teased because they did not have nice clothes to wear. “I was going to school with people, some of whom didn’t even have running water,” she says. “I was very fortunate.”
“I noticed that the kids who had less, they had a difficult time academically and socially,” she adds. “The schools were also failing them.”
When the Penders joined the Leandro lawsuit, the family did so with the knowledge that Schnika wasn’t likely to enjoy any change a victory might bring. Major school funding cases like Leandro take a long time to move through the courts. But other bright, talented students in Halifax County would be left behind.
For example, when Pender attended Southeast Halifax High School, it did not offer highly prized Advanced Placement courses readily available in wealthier communities. AP courses give students an advantage when applying for college.
(Only after the Leandro suit was filed did the district include AP classes in its curriculum. Yet the North Carolina State Report Card for Halifax County Schools shows only a single student enrolled in an AP course during the 2018-19 school year. )
But despite the district’s shortcomings, Schnika’s education was enhanced by trips to the library, bookstores, museums, lectures, summer programs and camps. “My parents were very supportive of making sure I had those opportunities,” she says.
Pender was fortunate to have another opportunity: She applied, and was accepted to the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham, a prestigious two-year, state-supported residential and S.T.E.M.-themed school that is attended by some of the state’s brightest juniors and seniors.
“I was starting behind the eight ball, and I had to catch up with my classmates,” Pender says. “The transition was a little harsh. I was coming from a background where I didn’t have to study hard, didn’t have to work hard. The homework assignments I was getting back home, I could quickly do and have the rest of my evening to watch TV.”
Pender recalls the disappointing score she received on one of her first English assignments at NCSSM. “I turned it in, thought I’d done a great job and the teacher basically handed it back as a zero,” she says. “She said I hadn’t done anything she’d asked me to do. That was a little crushing. So, it was an adjustment.”
After graduation, Pender headed west to historically Black N.C. A&T University in Greensboro. She graduated in 2000 with a degree in computer science and now works at Teradata in Raleigh as a product support manager.
She is one of many former Halifax County residents who have left for larger cities and towns that offer good-paying careers and a more vibrant social life. “The education piece is just one part of it,” Pender says. “There are not a lot of jobs and the economy is not good. There’s a lot of things that contribute to it. I see students there struggling to make it out.”
One of Pender’s contemporaries, Rodney Pierce, made it out but came back. Pierce, a social studies teacher, was named one of the Halifax County School’s Most Outstanding Beginning Teachers in 2018. He still lives in Halifax County and his children attend schools there.
He now teaches in Rocky Mount, where he won the 2019 N.C. Council for the Social Studies Teacher of the Year.
Pierce said that when he was a student, the teachers in the Halifax school district were an equalizing force. “The teachers that I had were always very proud,” Pierce says. “I think they did a damned good job instilling in us the confidence that we could compete.”O n a cool, brisk day in March, a couple of weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic brought the nation to a standstill, the main thoroughfare in Scotland Neck was bustling with cars and people. The Scotland Neck Memorial Library on Main Street was also surprisingly busy for a Friday afternoon.
Patrons milled about at computer workstations and sat at tables reading books and magazines in the same place, that as a youth, Schnika Pender completed homework assignments and fed her voracious reading appetite.
Library Manager Bonnie Ludlum is white and a lifelong resident of the county. But she didn’t attend the county’s public schools. Her parents choose instead to send Ludlum and an older brother to Enfield Academy, a private Christian school in neighboring Nash County.
Like her parents. Ludlum also steered her children away of the county’s public schools. Her oldest child began his school career at Hobgood Academy — a one-time private school in Halifax County that has since been converted to a public charter school and renamed Hobgood Charter School. But when he turned 6, Ludlum decided to homeschool him because she didn’t think Hobgood was meeting his needs.
Ludlum also homeschooled a second child after kindergarten. She has a five-year-old in Hobgood’s preschool whom she hopes to enroll in the charter school next year.
“The perception of the public schools is that they are overwhelmed and overcrowded,” Ludlum explained. “When they closed several of the schools here, the kids were getting bused too far. That’s too much, especially for the little ones. I think that’s why the charter school is so popular. It’s only eight miles down the road.”
Halifax County is an outlier in North Carolina. Despite having only about 7,000 school-aged children, the county operates three separate school districts: Halifax County Schools and Weldon City Schools are majority Black, while the Roanoke Rapids Graded School District is majority white.
The Halifax and Weldon districts have been routinely among the lowest performing districts in the state and, parents contend, critically underfunded. A group of parents sued Halifax County Commissioners to force a merger of the districts, believing it would help to alleviate funding inequities in the majority Black districts.
As reported by Policy Watch in 2017, the parents complained about crumbling ceilings, failing air conditioning and heating systems, broken-down school buses, mold infestations, rodents, sewage from flooded toilets and dismal academic results year in and year out.
But several courts ruled in Silver et al vs. The Halifax County Board of Commissioners, that not the county commissioners, but the state of North Carolina, is responsible for ensuring children have adequate funding to receive a quality education. The state Supreme Court affirmed the lower courts rulings in 2018.
That leaves the Leandro decision to help the students of Halifax County Schools — help that is more than 20 years overdue.
“That’s been a generational topic that has led to talk about equality, what some school districts need, what some children need, so all children can run the race equally,” Halifax County Schools Superintendent Eric Cunningham says.
After Leandro, Halifax and other low-wealth districts received additional resources but Cunningham says the amount decreased after the federal “Race to the Top” school reform effort ended.
Cunningham says the school district also loses state funding because it’s over the cap for exceptional children Exceptional children include those who are gifted and those who have disabilities. “Why do we lose funding for that?” Cunningham said. “We still have to educate them.”
Other funding rules penalize low-income district. Cunningham says Halifax families often move. But if a student returns to the district in the middle of the school year, there’s no state funding for that child. “That strains already limited resources even more,” Cunningham says.
Jane Wettach, a clinical professor at Duke University Law School with expertise in education law, has watched the Leandro case for many years. It’s taken more than two decades for the Leandro ruling to take effect because changing schools is a complicated process.
She said the process has been hamstrung by separation of powers concerns involving the judicial, executive and legislative branches. “In North Carolina, the judicial branch simply made a statement that North Carolina was not offering every child access to a sound basic education,” Wettach says.
“But it’s not up to the court to decide how to fix that. North Carolina’s courts have been more reluctant than some other courts to tell the legislature and the executive branch what to do.”
Wettach noted that the courts have no real enforcement power over the legislature. “The courts have said [to lawmakers] that you need to spend $8 billion more, but if the legislature doesn’t appropriate $8 billion more, there’s nothing the courts can do but tell them again,” Wettach says.
“There are a huge number of moving parts that all have to be coordinated and there is no silver bullet for how to fix schools,” Wettach says. “If there were, we would have figured it out a long time ago.”
The WestEd report ordered by Judge Lee is a game-changer, Wettach says. “It reflects a different kind of commitment because we’ve never had any kind of agreement, we’ve never even had a study, on what would it take [to move North Carolina’s educational system forward].”
After the release of the WestEd report, Judge Lee directed lawyers on both sides of Leandro to work together to develop an improvement plan for K-12 education in 60 days. The plan was due in late March, but Lee extended the deadline until April 30 in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.
Cunningham remains hopeful that the state lawmakers will take seriously the recommendations in the WestEd report. “We need those resources desperately,” Cunningham says. “We will operate effectively within our means with the resources that we’re blessed with. I’m hopeful that a solution can be found and that we can start to bring those resources to Halifax County Schools.”
Meanwhile, Schnika Pender remains cautiously optimistic that real change will come. “It’s about time,” Pender said. “It’s been more than long enough. You have an entire generation of students who have been left out, who haven’t received any remediation.”