News: CJ Exclusives

State Supreme Court Gets Another Crack at Leandro

Justices will consider whether state has offered at-risk students adequate opportunities

North Carolina’s highest court is about to weigh in — again — on state government’s constitutional role in making sure children considered at risk of failure in school begin kindergarten with the proper tools to succeed.

Oral arguments are scheduled Oct. 15 in Hoke County Board of Education v. State of North Carolina. It’s the latest iteration of what became known as the landmark 1997 Leandro case, in which several school systems from poorer counties filed a lawsuit claiming the children in their counties weren’t receiving adequate and equal educational opportunities.

It produced an N.C. Supreme Court opinion saying that every child should have the opportunity to a “sound, basic education.” It lifted Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning to fame, as he was the trial judge assigned to handle the case and subsequent legal procedures.

Recent funding changes to N.C. Pre-K, formerly known as More at Four, by Republican majorities in the General Assembly have resulted in a new ruling by Manning, prompting appeals to the N.C. Court of Appeals and now the state Supreme Court.

“They cut the funding to N.C. Pre-K pretty substantially,” said Leanne Winner, director of governmental relations for the N.C. School Boards Association.

The school boards association has filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the Hoke County Board of Education and others challenging the changes made by the General Assembly.

Former Supreme Court Associate Justice Bob Orr, who wrote a subsequent Leandro opinion in 2004, filed the brief on behalf of the school boards association.

Manning had called for a pre-kindergarten program in his ruling that led to the 2004 Supreme Court case.

Orr called Leandro his “swan song opinion” — his last ruling before leaving the court. In it, the Supreme Court said the state had to come up with a remedy for children from poorer families who were unprepared for kindergarten.

Orr said that the court “identified without controversy” that “at-risk kids” entered kindergarten so far behind that it would be difficult for them to catch up.

“It wasn’t up to the trial court to make that determination,” Orr said. “It was up to the state.”

Orr said that after Manning told the state to “get them up to speed,” lawmakers established pre-K programs over the course of the next seven years.

After the General Assembly made changes in the program in 2011, Orr said Manning reminded lawmakers that the pre-K program was the agreed-to remedy. “If you’re going to come in and reduce it or start moving backwards from it, you’ve got to find something to replace it,” Orr said.

In a memo, Jeanette Doran, executive director of the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law, says N.C. Pre-K is one of several state programs targeting at-risk children.

“The state has enacted many programs in addition to N.C. Pre-K to address the needs of at-risk children before and as they enter kindergarten,” Doran’s memo says. “On appeal, the North Carolina Supreme Court should recognize that the Hoke County court failed to account for multiple programs in place in addition to N.C. Pre-K to assist at-risk children.”

Doran lists Smart Start, a program begun by former Gov. Jim Hunt in 1993, as one program to help working parents pay for child care. She said Smart Start has some similarities to N.C. Pre-K, although it is a distinct program.

Lifting the cap on charter schools, as the General Assembly did in 2011, also provides opportunities for charter schools to serve high-poverty areas, Doran says. In addition, state law is targeting literacy among younger pupils. “If a screening shows that students need extra help, those students will be tutored in instructional supports such as phonics and vocabulary,” Doran says.

Doran lists other recently enacted laws meant to help at-risk students who have disabilities or who come from poorer demographics.

Those programs provide up to $6,000 in scholarship grants for special-needs students to attend private schools, and up to $4,200 per year for students from lower-income families to attend a private school.

Orr said the programs suggested by Doran haven’t been offered to Manning as evidence that the state is meeting its duty.

“If [critics of Leandro] have another way, present them to the trial court,” Orr said.

Barry Smith (@Barry_Smith) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.