News: CJ Exclusives

Agreement on consultant and commission could break Leandro logjam

More than two decades of litigation may end, but court and legislature must agree on proposals to improve education in low-income counties

After two decades, the parties involved in the landmark Leandro v. North Carolina lawsuit have filed a joint court motion asking an independent consultant to help enforce a state Supreme Court order guaranteeing a quality education to every North Carolina student.

Alongside that move, Gov. Roy Cooper set up a state commission to make its own recommendations about Leandro. Executive Order 10 establishes the Commission on Access to a Sound Basic Education.

Retired Union County Superior Court Judge David Lee, who since 2016 has overseen the Leandro case, must OK the motion. If he does, and he orders the state to adopt any recommendations, the lawsuit could end.

It’s a big if. 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.

Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, voiced some concerns about the direction the case was taking. He noted that the consultant and the commission may not share the priorities set out by Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning — who was tasked with overseeing Leandro enforcement from 1997 until he retired in 2015.

The Leandro case started in 1994 when five rural school districts sued the state arguing that they couldn’t raise enough tax revenue locally to provide an education for their students on par with the schools in wealthier districts.

In 1997, the Supreme Court held that every North Carolina child has a right to “a sound, basic education” under the state constitution. Later in a 2004 ruling, the court said the state had not lived up to the dictates of the 1997 decision.

While the state’s education establishment and left-leaning lawmakers argued that the ruling mandated a major shift of tax dollars from urban to rural districts, Stoops said Manning disagreed.

“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,” Stoops wrote in a blog post.

“The ‘independent consultant’ and appointees to Governor Cooper’s new Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education may try to convince the court to abandon Manning’s focus (and the separation of powers) and order the legislature to fund public education at a prescribed level,” Stoops explained.

In a press release, the governor suggested more money was needed.

“No matter where North Carolina students live or go to school in our state, they all deserve access to a quality education that prepares them for the jobs and opportunities of the future,” Cooper said. “That is their right as children of North Carolina and we must not let them down.”

The commission will have 17 members appointed by the governor. Their job is to review the state’s ability to staff schools with competent and well-trained teachers and principals, while also monitoring whether the state is giving public schools adequate resources.

The threat alone of a new funding mandate may be enough finally to put the Leandro case to rest, Stoops said, by encouraging the General Assembly to pass legislation meeting the requirements laid out by the Supreme Court.