At the center of the debate surrounding the new state budget, public school advocates claim it falls hundreds of millions of dollars short of a court-ordered mandate to increase funding to improve public education. The issue is a familiar one for North Carolina parents and educators, who for the last 25 years have heard about the landmark case, Leandro v. State, in which the state Supreme Court ruled that every child deserved the right to receive “a sound basic education.”
The Leandro case originated in 1994 when families from five low-wealth school districts — Hoke, Halifax, Robeson, Vance, and Cumberland — took the state to court claiming North Carolina was not providing their kids with the same educational opportunities as students in higher-income districts. The case is the longest running piece of litigation in the history of the state. The tangible results of Leandro decision were soon visible: initially, low-wealth school districts received about $100 million more funding as a result of the ruling.
Decades later, the young man who agreed to be the public face of the original case is all grown up, practicing law and raising four children with his wife in Raleigh. Robb Leandro was only in the 8th grade when his family got involved with the case. His family was from Raeford, a small town outside of Fayetteville where the per capita income in 2018 was around $19,000 and the median household income was around $33,000.
Leandro is an attorney specializing in health care at Raleigh’s Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein, which happens to be the same firm that represented him more than 20 years ago. His practice focuses on helping health-care providers navigate regulatory issues. In a recent conversation, he discussed how the case has stayed with him through his adult life and how it has shaped his professional development.
Q: What was your relationship to the Leandro v. State case for readers who may not know?
A: My mother and I are Leandro. Technically because I was minor the lawsuit had to be filed by one of my parents so it was filed in my Mother’s name as my guardian. So I think it’s Kathy Leandro on behalf of her minor son Robb Leandro or something like that.
Q: What was your experience like, were you just the “face of the case” or were you much more involved in the day-to-day court hearings?
A: I was mainly the face of the case. Attorneys typically don’t ask 15-year-old what they think about their legal strategy, but seriously, the attorneys and the school districts have done all the hard work and any good that has come from the case is a credit to their determination. I cannot imagine the hundreds and thousands of hours that people have put into this case over the years. I have always agreed to do as many interviews or speak at as many conferences or dinners as I’m asked because I think it is important to tell my family’s story and represent the folks of my hometown Raeford because people need to know there are large parts of this state that need more attention from our leaders and need someone speaking out for them.
Q: How long did they go on? What was the duration of your family’s involvement?
A: We got involved before the case was filed — I think I was in 8th grade, maybe 1993, and have stayed involved ever since, although technically at some point I was dropped from the case because I was no longer a student.
Q: How did the case impact the town of Raeford and Hoke County where you grew up?
A: TBD [to be determined]. For some time, there seemed to be some pretty positive momentum and I think the low wealth schools did get some attention and we have benefited from having some good school leadership and teachers. But if you asked me if students in Hoke County have the same educational opportunities as those in Orange County or Wake have I think the answer is pretty much a resounding no. If you ask me if they are inherently as smart as the kids from Orange County and Wake County the answer is yes. So I think it’s pretty important that we make sure there is an equality of opportunity to those kids.
Q: You are a lawyer at Parker Poe now. Did your experience with the Leandro case influence your decision to go into law?
A: Yes, Parker Poe represented the Leandro plaintiffs and still represent the Low Wealth School Districts in the case. For me I may or may not have gone to law school if not for the Leandro case. I’ve always been interested in the law, but certainly getting to know people like Bob Spearman, who is legendary in his own right and was the lead attorney from Parker Poe, sealed the deal for me. Seeing that you can practice law at the highest level and still be devoted to doing good and helping your state advance made me realize that law was the type of profession I wanted to be associated with, barring the lawyer jokes of course.
Q: Does your profession influence how you feel about the education system?
A: I’m not a criminal attorney, but I’ve been in enough court rooms to know that our criminal justice system would be a lot less busy if the state was meeting its constitutional mandate to provide all of its young citizens a sound basic education.
Q: Can you talk about your relationship with Justice Orr, who wrote the original decision and also lives right here in Raleigh? Did you work closely with him in 2004 when he wrote that opinion?
A: I did not know Justice Orr until well after he issued Leandro II (a follow up to the case) and retired from the bench. I’ve had the opportunity to sit down and talk with him and Justice Burley Mitchell (authored Leandro I) and it is fascinating to hear their stories and what went into their individual decisions. I’ve had the opportunity to get to know Judge Orr better over the years and admire his courage and resolve in issuing the Leandro II decision. I’m sure it was not easy for him to make that decision and I know with all cases that make it to the Supreme Court there are good legal arguments to be made on both sides of a case, but I think he got it right, for obvious reasons, and I’m glad he was willing to stick his neck out and write the decision he did.
Q: On a daily basis how does the case impact you?
A: Honestly and unfortunately the case never had a direct impact on me in terms of my education. By the time it was decided I was in college and then law school. But I have had the honor of being associated with the case for all of my adult life and you’d be surprised how often it comes up. I bet at least once a month someone will call or ask me to talk about it. Leandro is not the most common name so sometimes I’ll be in the checkout line at the grocery store and the clerk will see my name on my bank card and ask if I’m the Leandro. When I’m practicing before a new judge I can count on it being the first question I get from the bench. And I’ve tried to always talk to groups, journalist, academics, conferences, really whoever asks, because I think it’s important that the story gets out there, that more people know what the NC Constitution guarantees in terms of education and that we constantly build momentum toward finding a way to get there for all of North Carolina’s students.
Q: Is there anything else you can add about what it has been like in general to be in the public spotlight for most of your life due to this?
A: I always like to say this to anyone who asks — Leandro is not and should not be a political issue. If there is one thing we should be able to agree on whether you are liberal or conservative is that kids deserve at least a sound basic education and society will be better for it when we start providing it. It also should not be a political issue because when we first filed the suit almost everything political in North Carolina was dominated by the Democratic Party and clearly they were the party in charge at the time the Court determined that North Carolina had failed to provide students a sound basic education. Now the party power structure has flipped to a large degree over the last 10 years but the same issues remain in terms of students seeking an opportunity to obtain a sound basic education in many of North Carolina’s schools. Given that neither party can say it’s blameless and neither has a monopoly on good ideas, my sincere hope has always been that Leandro might serve as an opportunity for both parties to come together and say we may disagree on a lot of things, but not this.
This August, the state Supreme Court plans to hear oral arguments on the case, including whether the courts can order additional funding.