Education stakeholders have long puzzled over how to implement the standards laid out in the decades-old Leandro case. A couple of groups are forming ideas to ensure the state lives up to the standards, but the range of conflicting voices involved may complicate the issue.  

Plus, any recommendations requiring money would have to get lawmakers’ approval, which may prove difficult. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has long pressed legislators to spend more on public education. But the General Assembly — led by the Republican majority in both chambers — has focused on expanding school-choice opportunities and spending new money on programs that deliver measurable improvements. 

The governor, on the other hand, has said school choice has gone too far and advocates freezing if not eliminating funding for the Opportunity Scholarships.

Resolving these differences may be the key to finally putting Leandro to bed. 

It won’t be easy. 

Leandro dates to 1994, when five rural school districts sued the state, arguing they couldn’t raise enough tax revenue locally to provide their students an education on the same level with schools in wealthier districts. A few years later, the state Supreme Court held that every North Carolina child has a right to “a sound, basic education” under the state constitution. In 2004, the court ruled the state failed to live up to the previous ruling. 

The case was remanded to Superior Court, where Judge Howard Manning was in charge of overseeing compliance with the Leandro rulings. He retired in 2016, and Judge David Lee took over. 

Leandro dictates that every classroom must be staffed with a competent, well-trained teacher, and every school must be staffed with a competent, well-trained principal. Add to that a requirement to identify the resources needed to ensure all children — even at-risk students — have an equal opportunity to a sound, basic education. 

Deciding that children were entitled to a quality education was one thing, but how to accomplish that ideal was a whole other matter.  

“I think to the extent that the litigation took place has been a huge plus for public education,” Bob Orr, an attorney and former N.C. Supreme Court justice, said. “Now implementation has been a whole lot tougher, but that’s just the reality of operations of millions of school children and a multi-million-dollar budget.” 

Orr, who wrote the 2004 court opinion in Leandro II, said one reason the standards have been difficult to implement is because of the diverse group of stakeholders involved in providing education in North Carolina.  

“The structure of governance for the public school system is archaic and out of date,” Orr said. “You have to decide, Where does the buck stop?”   

Several voices are now clamoring to be heard in Leandro 

One of those voices is the Governor’s Commission on Access to a Sound, Basic Education. Formed in 2017, the 19-member group was tasked with coming up with recommendations on how to meet the standards outlined in the Leandro case.  

“Many state-level policymakers, including the governor, the Department of Public Instruction, the State Board of Education, and the General Assembly will be involved in implementing the recommendations that will ultimately be included in Judge Lee’s consent order,” said Patrick Miller, a commission member and superintendent of Greene County schools.  

The commission met for several months before making the draft recommendations public May 14. Recommendations ranged from increasing teacher and educational support staff pay to providing incentives to teachers to teach in hard-to-staff schools. 

“The extent that we believe it’s possible and practical for the commission to provide data that would suggest costs, we will do it,” Commission Chair Brad Wilson said. “If it’s not sufficient, then in my opinion we would not render that kind of recommendation. … Some things are more easily calculable than other things.” 

Wilson said the final recommendations may include suggested ranges for funding to provide a good understanding of what some initiatives may cost to implement.  

Another voice is WestEd, an independent consultant picked to make recommendations on how to comply with the Leandro standards. The education nonprofit gave its report to Judge Lee on June 17.  

The consultant and the commission will suggest policies to enforce the Leandro decision, but any recommendations requiring money would have to get the General Assembly’s approval. The consultant and the commission will work separately from each other and file their own reports, but information can be shared between the two. 

Wilson said the commission plans to meet again later in the summer to discuss the WestEd report, once it’s made public. 

The WestEd report will be sent to Lee for consideration; Lee will then release a consent order outlining how the state can meet its obligation to the state’s public school children. The commission’s report will go to the governor.  

“It’ll be a document that obviously we hope gives a lot of public attention and study and interest from all constituencies that are invested and care about public education,” Wilson said.  

Wilson said he expects the governor will take the recommendations seriously and use them to guidehis budget priorities. Likewise, he hopes the General Assembly will take notice and incorporate their findings into their funding decisions.  

“We certainly recognize that a gubernatorial leadership and legislative leadership is always necessary to craft the best policy,” Wilson said.  

Whereas Manning was reluctant to suggest spending amounts, Lee’s approach may prove different.  

“Manning believed that the focus should be on the effectiveness of the expenditures themselves, rather than on the amount of taxpayer money allocated to schools,” Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, wrote in a blog post. 

Stoops wrote that the independent consultant and appointees to Cooper’s Leandro commission may try to persuade the court to change tactics and order the legislature to fund public education at a prescribed, higher level. 

The governor’s Leandro commission may reflect the governor’s educational priorities. For the first time in the Leandro saga, charter schools were explicitly mentioned. Some members talked about how charter schools were siphoning money from traditional public schools and have placed a financial and planning burden on traditional public schools. 

The argument resonates with school-choice opponents, even though charters don’t get capital funding and other taxpayer spending traditional public schools receive. 

The governor’s commission recommends the state use a different (and likely stingier) formula to fund charter schools. Money for new charter schools and enrollment increases could come from a direct state appropriation, instead of charter schools receiving the same amount of money per student as traditional public schools.  

So far, Stoops said, charter schools haven’t been a big part of the conversations surrounding Leandro. 

But that may soon change.  

“Zeroing in on charter schools suggests that it’s on someone’s agenda rather than as a way to try to address the educational shortcomings identified in the Leandro case,” Stoops said. 

Whether those recommendations make it into the consent order is an important variable.  

“The leaders of this state, Republicans, Democrats, unaffiliated, business community, the broader education community, elected officials, need to have an ongoing discussion about how do we make sure that every kid has the opportunity for a great education,” Orr said. “I don’t think we have had enough cohesive discussion about where the problems are.