Eastern NC schools wait for justice in 30-year-old education funding lawsuit

Sunset over Lumberton. Lumberton, part of Robeson County, is one of many towns caught up waiting for the state to fix long-standing education funding issues exposed in the Leandro lawsuit. (Shutterstock)

By Billy Ball

October 30, 2023

For nearly three decades, families in underserved communities in eastern NC have been asking the state to fix their chronically underfunded schools. They talked to us about keeping the faith.

When locals in eastern NC filed a lawsuit in 1994—known as the Leandro lawsuit—complaining of miserable public education funding, Rodney Pierce was a sophomore at Northwest Halifax High.

Today, he’s a history teacher in neighboring Nash County, and he’s sending three children through the Halifax County school system. The Leandro lawsuit, which was filed by parents and educators in Hoke, Halifax, Robeson, Vance, and Cumberland counties, still isn’t settled.

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In March, a new Republican majority on the state Supreme Court halted a court order directing the state to finally make up for the funding gaps. A previous version of the high court, one with a Democratic majority, made the order just four months prior. Schools lost out on hundreds of millions of dollars that the 2022 court agreed was owed.

“You rely on your faith. Stay prayed up. Continue to advocate.”

Rodney Pierce, Halifax County native, teacher

Eastern NC schools wait for justice in 30-year-old education funding lawsuit

NC educator Rodney Pierce went to school in Nash County, one of the original Leandro counties. He blames both parties for failing to address the schools’ funding crisis. (Photo by Marcus Jones)

These rulings were as close as eastern NC schools have come to getting the funding they’ve sought since 1994, even though the courts have ruled multiple times that they’ve been wronged by the state.

“As a parent of kids in the school system, as an alumnus, as a teacher, I feel it all three ways,” Pierce says.

So does Jackie McLean, a dropout prevention counselor in Hoke County Schools who admits she gets “amped up” when she talks about the case. McLean’s worked in Hoke County Schools for more than 30 years. Her daughter was a student when Leandro was filed.

She remembers local schools getting discarded books from other school systems. Science labs that didn’t have equipment.

What comes next is on a lot of people’s minds out here in eastern NC.

“I can imagine when Dr. King was doing the work he was doing and he had to ask, ‘Where do we go from here?’”

Hoke County educator Jackie McLean

In 1997, the state Supreme Court decided that NC had failed to provide a “sound, basic education” in the Leandro counties—Hoke, Halifax, Robeson, Vance, and Cumberland —a decision confirmed again in 2004. Since the beginning, lawmakers have fought against the case, which, although it’s not often framed like it, is a civil rights case. Eastern NC counties educate a greater percentage of kids from low-income households, many of them Black and Brown families.

Schools there don’t have the same classes, the same experienced teachers and principals. In short, they don’t get the same education.

“That’s what Leandro is about,” says McLean. “Just fundamentally receiving what we’re entitled to.”

Eastern NC schools wait for justice in 30-year-old education funding lawsuit

Hoke County’s Jackie McLean is one eastern NC educator who’s been waiting the entirety of the Leandro case for action.

“I don’t understand for the life of me how you can say you support education and do everything that you can to chop at it and to deny the resources,” McLean adds.

A history lesson

Multiple courts and judges have agreed NC’s failed to fund its constitutional obligation of a “sound, basic education,” particularly in rural eastern NC counties that don’t have the tax base or the local funds to make up for the state’s failures.

When the Leandro lawsuit got started, Democrats were in charge in the state legislature, and Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt, who had a reputation as NC’s “education governor,” was enjoying his third of four terms. The problem deepened under Republicans, who took hold of the legislature in the 2010 elections. Since then, GOP lawmakers have underfunded public schools, education leaders say, while ramping up school choice programs like charter schools and private school vouchers.

A nonpartisan national report this year ranked NC last in the nation for “funding effort,” which takes into account a state’s economy. Another annual report of local school funding from the nonpartisan Public School Forum of NC details how funding in poorer, rural counties is just a fraction of the amount spent on education in wealthier counties.

“The anger is that you would try to rob the traditional public school program,” says Pierce. “And expand a voucher program that has racist roots—this from the ‘party of fiscal conservatism.’”

GOP lawmakers are hardly arguing the state is doing right by NC’s kids. They say courts can’t direct them to spend money to fix it. Last year, the state Supreme Court disagreed, ordering them to turn over millions to public school systems. But this year, a new Republican court majority elected in 2022 halted that order.

It was a devastating reversal to rural schools. Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls, one of two Democrats on the court, blasted the court’s flip in her dissent, calling it “extraordinary, unprincipled, and unprecedented.”

“Today’s order abandons the concept of respect for precedent, law of the case, stare decisis (or determining the points of a case based on court precedent), and the rule of law all in the name of preventing the state from complying with its constitutional duty to provide a sound, basic education to the children of this state,” Earls wrote.

“Disappointed is an understatement to hear about this decision by five on the State Supreme Court, to willfully ignore the NC Constitution for our students (to) have their right to funded public schools,” Tamika Walker Kelly, a Cumberland County educator and head of the NC Association of Educators, said at the time. “Prime example of why elections matter.”

What comes next?

For now, this year’s ruling by the state Supreme Court will prevent any immediate change. But don’t be surprised if it’s litigated again.

The Leandro case will put a greater emphasis on elections for seats on the state Supreme Court.


Eastern NC schools wait for justice in 30-year-old education funding lawsuit

If Democrats want to change the state of NC’s high court, it will take patience. (Graphic by Cardinal & Pine)

And, of course, on elections for the state legislature. Republicans hold a thin veto-proof majority in the legislature, meaning Roy Cooper, NC’s Democratic governor, can do little to keep them in check.

If Democrats hold the governor’s office in the 2024 election and flip a couple seats in one chamber or the other, Republicans would be more likely to have to negotiate with them. Although Leandro started under a Democratic legislature, these days most Democrats are calling for the state to make it right—and it’s not an impossible task.

A court-ordered consultant in 2019 laid out a plan for the state to address the funding gaps, improve the quality of teachers and administrators in low-wealth counties, boost early childhood ed, and more. The plan would cost about $1.7 billion. For context, GOP tax cuts scheduled in the state budget this year would cost NC an estimated $13.1 billion in revenue annually by 2031, money that could be going to services like the public schools. And Republicans plan to expand the private school voucher program to about $500 million by 2032.

The funding crisis in Leandro schools is a choice, not a necessity.

Changing the state Supreme Court will take years, but it could be significant. Justices serve eight-year terms. And the two seats up for grabs in 2024 and 2026 are held by Democrats. So it will take patience, from a group that’s already waited 30 years.

“You rely on your faith,” says Pierce. “Stay prayed up. Continue to advocate. You run for these elected positions.”

“I can imagine when Dr. King was doing the work he was doing and he had to ask, ‘where do we go from here?’” McLean says.

“My thoughts are that we continue to fight. We continue to be vigilant, to speak to our educators, to lobby, to involve our parents and our communities. We continue to speak about Leandro, because it is 30 years overdue.”


  • 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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