The Tragedy of North Carolina’s Leandro Case

North Carolina Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, in 2021. The state Supreme Court order last week blocked a long-gestating court order forcing the state legislature to pay out for years of underfunding public schools. (AP Photo/Gary D. Robertson, File)

By Billy Ball

March 8, 2023

Last week, a newly-elected Republican majority on the state Supreme Court blocked millions of dollars for underfunded public schools. They haven’t just undermined the courts. They’ve undermined all of us.

Last week was tragic for North Carolina children.

A newly-elected Republican majority on the NC Supreme Court blocked a court order in the long-running Leandro case directing state lawmakers to spend millions fixing decades of underfunding for NC’s public schools. Their order reverses one made just months ago by the same court, albeit one with a Democratic majority.

The tragedy isn’t the court’s impermanence, although this decision makes justice look like it’s rendered on an Etch A Sketch, just a shake and an election away from being erased. 

It’s that millions of school children—especially Black and Brown children—will linger in schools without the resources to offer the same classes, experienced teachers, facilities, equipment, or technology. In short, they cannot offer the same quality of education.  

That’s the tragedy. That another generation of children will come and go while this interminable case, which turns a strapping 30 years old next year, returns to the lower counts for another round of hearings.

Senate leader Phil Berger, one of the most powerful Republicans in the state, celebrated the court’s latest twist, admonishing the plaintiffs in the Leandro case for believing that the “pathway to student improvement is always the simple application of more money.”

Which is the type of thing someone with money says to someone who doesn’t have it. 

Try running a school on willpower and passion. North Carolina’s poorest counties have been trying it for decades and it doesn’t often work. A well-funded school might not guarantee a good education, but a poorly-funded school usually guarantees a bad one. 

In 2021, an Edgecombe County student wrote about moving from her local school to a better-funded one in Durham. 

“I realized it wasn’t normal to have a substitute teacher the entire year,” she wrote. “I realized it wasn’t normal to share one nurse with an entire county of schools. I realized it wasn’t normal for students to lose a year of education because of a lack of internet access at home.”

Inequality is the status quo in North Carolina. And last week’s order by the state Supreme Court means it will be for the foreseeable future.

How did we get here?

Parents in five eastern North Carolina counties initiated the Leandro case in 1994. Since then, multiple courts have agreed with their premise — that the funding gaps between rich and poor counties are a violation of the state Constitution’s promise of a good education. 

Things haven’t gotten better since 1994. Democrats ran the state legislature then. Republicans run it now. And the only thing they have in common is that neither party fixed the problem.

Last year, students in the top 10 funded counties spent about $4,157 per pupil, according to the nonpartisan Public School Forum. Students in the bottom 10 counties got $968.

It is punishing arithmetic. That the gap exists isn’t a matter of debate. What to do about it is.

Since the late 1990s, NC judges have called on the state legislature, which writes the budget, to fill the gaps. When the courts grew weary of asking, they ordered it.

How patient were the courts? Republican Superior Court Judge David Lee ordered the state to pay billions in November 2021, about 27 years after the case began. Otherworldly patient.

But lawmakers today say only the legislature can order spending, meaning it will be up to them when and if North Carolina puts its money where its Constitution is. Last week’s order from the new Supreme Court makes it clear that they agree. 

Dissenting Justice Anita Earls called the new order “extraordinary, unprecedented, and unprincipled.” 

Add tragic to that list. 


  • Billy Ball

    Billy Ball is Cardinal & Pine's senior community editor. He’s covered local, state and national politics, government, education, criminal justice, the environment and immigration in North Carolina for almost two decades, winning state, regional and national awards for his reporting and commentary.

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