Crowds cheer during a 2018 demonstration against the GOP-controlled NC General Assembly's education policies, including the state's expanding private school voucher program. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images) North Carolina Schools
Crowds cheer during a 2018 demonstration against the GOP-controlled NC General Assembly's education policies, including the state's expanding private school voucher program. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)

It’s been nearly three decades since parents charged North Carolina’s degenerate leaders with breaking their constitutional obligation to all children. The state’s Supreme Court has a chance to do something about it. 

It was 25 years ago that North Carolina’s top court ruled the state failed to pay for a quality education for all.

In that time, the kids who were languishing in the most poorly-funded schools in the state have had time to grow up and send their children to the same poorly-funded schools. And still there is no resolution to the Leandro case

Perhaps that’s why longtime K-12 advocates sounded so weary Wednesday, in a debriefing hours after the state Supreme Court heard oral arguments again over Leandro. 

This time, the court is deciding on the constitutionality of a lower court’s order forcing the state legislature to pay the schools what they owe — at minimum, about $1.7 billion. The court is expected to rule in the next two to three months.

“We have to do better in North Carolina,” said the Rev. Corine Mack, a leader with Charlotte’s NAACP. 

On Wednesday, Mack said she couldn’t stop thinking about the children who’ve come and gone in underfunded schools. “That’s what breaks my heart,” she said.

All the while state legislative leaders bickered on how to solve their inequality problem, which has expanded in both a legal and philosophical sense. Where Leandro began in five, rural eastern N.C. counties, today the courts are considering fundamental inequalities in all 100 counties. 

Middling to bad funding from the state has left the poorest counties and the poorest schools to struggle, many of them filled with Black and Brown students. At the same time, the GOP legislature has built an historic “rainy-day” savings fund and dramatically increased spending on private schools and other school choice programs. 

Leandro is more than a court case today. It’s a matter of philosophy, something David Hinojosa, an attorney with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, alluded to Wednesday. 

“The promise of public education,” he said, “has yet to be realized.” 

How Did We Get Here?

Parents in eastern North Carolina counties pointed out the obvious when they brought the Leandro case in 1994: Students in low-wealth counties weren’t being funded at the same level as students in affluent counties.

Poorer counties don’t have the local tax base to plug holes in the state’s funding. A few decades later and it’s not better. It’s not even close. In Orange County, each student is funded at about $5,800 a year. In Hoke County, one of the original Leandro counties, it’s $654. 

It’s a complicated problem. It has to do with local wealth, real estate, the local economy, state and local representation, and political power in Raleigh. But inequality is, in and of itself, simple and blunt. 

Some schools don’t have the same classes. They have less experienced teachers and principals. They lack modern technology. Their buildings need repair. They don’t have teaching assistants or quality extracurriculars or after-school programs.

Where a child is born and raised in North Carolina should not determine the quality of education they receive and subsequently what kind of future they have.

The Democratic-controlled state legislature didn’t address Leandro in the 2000s. And when Republicans seized power in 2011, they made matters worse, slashing school funding across the state in 2013 to make room for an overhaul of the tax code favoring the wealthy.

Through it all, Leandro has lingered like a crack in the foundation. So has its ugly questions: Do we value all children? If so, why aren’t we giving them all the same education? 

Last November, state Superior Court Judge David Lee, frustrated by the inaction on a decades-old debt, ordered the state legislature to pay at least a portion of it. A court-ordered remediation agreement last year would spend about $6.8 billion filling the holes. Lee ordered at least $1.7 billion to start. Lawmakers didn’t come close to budgeting it, insisting that the power of the purse belongs to the legislature under the state Constitution, not Judge Lee.

But that same Constitution guarantees a “sound, basic education,” North Carolina’s courts have ruled. And constitutional experts, like former state Supreme Court Judge Bob Orr, a Republican, say there’s little question courts have the power to specifically remedy a constitutional violation like this. 

The legislature’s refusal to acknowledge the court’s authority is, as many have pointed out, a kind of constitutional crisis. But children in North Carolina’s poorest counties have arguably been in crisis for decades.

And whatever the court orders, it will be just a start.

The legislature has yet to present its own plan for fixing Leandro’s fundamental questions in the long term.

“The status quo has got to go,” Hinojosa said Wednesday. “It’s not good for anyone in the state of North Carolina to have one of the worst public education systems in the country.”