Ask the average North Carolinian about the Leandro education funding lawsuit, and you’ll likely encounter a blank stare.

Even those who have followed the 30-year-old case closely will likely spout some version of the following narrative: “Republican lawmakers aren’t spending enough money on education. The Leandro lawsuit aims to boost state education spending to a more appropriate level.”

That narrative ignores key facts. The case started in 1994. Democrat Jim “Education Governor” Hunt was serving the second year of his third term in office. Democrats had controlled both chambers of the General Assembly for decades.

Nor does the narrative acknowledge that the key state Supreme Court Leandro decision, delivered in 1997, rejected plaintiffs’ plea for more money. Justices agreed that the North Carolina Constitution guaranteed students the right to the opportunity for a “sound, basic education.” The court did not agree that the constitutional right translated into more spending.

As the case headed to the state’s highest court for the fifth time last month, newer justices asked questions that helped clarify Leandro’s significance.

While most observers still use the Leandro name, neither original lead plaintiff Robb Leandro nor any other student serves as an active participant in the case. It’s a point Justice Trey Allen made while questioning attorneys on both sides of the Feb. 22 oral arguments.

“We made it crystal clear in [2004] that the right for an opportunity to a sound basic education is one that students possess and not school boards,” Allen said. “If there are no students left in the case, doesn’t that mean we have no parties left in the case that are entitled to relief?”

Both Allen and Justice Richard Dietz joined the state Supreme Court in 2023.

Dietz followed up on Allen’s line of questioning. Dietz noted that the plaintiffs seeking additional state education funding are local elected school boards — not students or parents.

“I’m thinking about the students,” Dietz said to attorney Melanie Dubis, who represents five school board plaintiffs. “This case needs to get to the outcome, which is to cure a very serious violation of the constitutional rights of students in our state. But one thing that’s awkward is that your client is the government. And it’s not just the government, but it’s the very government that’s violating the children’s constitutional rights.”

“Just put on your hat of objectivity and think about the perspective of someone watching this case and saying: Is that fair? … This is the very school district that’s violating the children’s rights now standing up in court and insisting that they can say what the right remedy needs to be without giving the students their day in court,” Dietz argued.

Dubis and other Leandro lawyers call on state courts to enforce funding of a multiyear “comprehensive remedial plan.” A lower court order would boost state education spending by $677 million in the short term. The plan’s overall price tag could reach into the billions.

Yet Dietz questioned how a court endorsement of that plan would affect students.

“Suppose that we affirm the trial court order in this case, and the comprehensive remedial plan begins to take effect, money’s being distributed, we’re one or two years in, and in some school district in our state … there’s a group of students who’ve never heard of Leandro, have no idea this case exists or know anything about it, but they’re not getting a sound, basic education in their school,” he said. “They get together with their parents. They get a lawyer. They get experts to explain what needs to be done to fix their school. … They go to court and file a lawsuit. What’s going to happen to that lawsuit?”

“Will those parents be told by a trial judge, ‘Sorry, your rights have already been decided,’ or can there continue to be many, many more Leandro suits?” Diez asked.

“I’m just concerned that there are students that are out there who may say, ‘Wait a minute. That’s not fair that the government is the one that’s deciding this for me. I never got to come to court and say here’s how you fix my school,’” Dietz added.

It’s not clear how Dietz’s line of questioning will affect the outcome of the latest Leandro dispute. The high court will decide in the months ahead whether a trial judge had the authority — officially “subject matter jurisdiction” — to order spending on the comprehensive plan.

Yet that ruling won’t end the debate over a “sound, basic education” for North Carolina’s school kids. Nor will it fit with a tidy but inaccurate narrative about the courts’ role in determining state education funding.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.