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North Carolina's Leandro case: Everything you need to know

Angus Thompson -- an original Leandro plaintiff -- speaks in downtown Raleigh.
Josh Sullivan
Angus Thompson is one of the original Leandro plaintiffs from Robeson County 28 years ago. He was one of the speakers on Saturday, Aug. 29, 2022 as educators, advocates, students, and school staff with Every Child NC gathered at the Halifax Mall in downtown Raleigh.

A decades-old education case lands before the North Carolina Supreme Court on Wednesday, with potential for major implications, as well as new chapters of uncertainty.

In May of 1994, parents, children and school districts in five low-income rural counties filed a lawsuit against the state, alleging that children were not receiving an adequate public school education, as required by the state constitution.

Yet 28 years later — after multiple judges, several trips to the state supreme court, a 300-page report on how to improve school conditions, Democratic and later Republican controlled legislatures that failed to act, not to mention an untold number of court filings — the case remains open and unfinished.

Below is a basic framework of the case, what to expect this week, and where it might all go from here. We're aiming to to tell you everything you need to know about the Leandro case.

What is this case all about?

Monday marks the return of in-person teaching at Wake County Public Schools. Students arrive at Davis Drive Elementary to temperature checks and health screenings in the carpool line.
Kate Medley
for WUNC
This 2020 photo shows a hallway at Davis Drive Elementary School in Wake County.

In a word — inequity.

In four words — a sound basic education.

The central question in this case is: Can a court order the state to increase spending by about $5.6 billion to fund an eight-year plan to improve public schools, after the general assembly has refused to fund it in a budget?

It’s about the haves and have-nots, disproportionate spending in schools — particularly when comparing urban and higher-income areas of the state with lower-income areas.

And it’s also about some big constitutional questions; primarily, can the state’s judicial branch ever force the legislature to spend money, given that the state constitution also promises North Carolina children a right to education?

It’s also, of course, about kids. If you’re wondering, there are about 1.5 million children who attend K-12 public schools across the state.

Where are these five rural counties?

The five counties that filed the lawsuit are Hoke, Halifax, Robeson, Vance and Cumberland. The first four are majority-minority counties — Halifax and Vance are majority Black, while Robeson is made-up of nearly 40% American Indians — and Hoke is proportionally diverse. Fayetteville, the sixth largest city in the state, is the county seat of Cumberland.

Technically the case is known as Hoke County Board of Education, et al. v. State of North Carolina, et al.

However, colloquially, it’s just the “Leandro” case.

So, who are the parties in this case? What are the sides?

Robb Leandro, a named plaintiff in the case, was an eighth grader back when this all started. Today he’s an attorney with the law firm Parker Poe.

The primary parties today are the schools vs. the state. The state is represented by the attorney general's office, which actually agrees with the schools' attorneys on a remedy — the multi-billion dollar comprehensive remedial plan. Critics say that's a problem though, because lawsuits are meant to be adversarial.

Then, at the 11th hour, the general assembly intervened this year to prevent the state from transferring funds to pay for the plan, after it was ordered by a judge. And many interested parties — from business leaders to community advocate agencies to law professors — have also signed briefs pertaining to the case.

So, five districts (and the parents and some kids) filed a lawsuit almost three decades ago. Why isn’t this settled?

Good question. Big one too. Here’s the turbocharged-Cliffs Notes edition:

Superior Court Judge Howard Manning presides over a Leandro education hearing in a Wake County courtroom on July 23, 2015. Manning retired last year.
Chris Seward
News Observer via AP
This 2015 file photo shows Superior Court Judge Howard Manning presiding over a Leandro education hearing in a Wake County courtroom on July 23. Manning has since retired.

  • In 1997, the state Supreme Court ruled that all students are entitled to a sound basic education. But of course, things were just getting started.
  • Seven years later — in 2004 — a lower court ruled that the state was not providing this “sound basic education” and ordered that every classroom have a certified teacher, and every school a well-trained principal, along with necessary resources to support instructional programs. This ruling was appealed all the way to the state Supreme Court where justices upheld the lower court ruling.
  • Over the next decade, judges overseeing the case found that the resources, funding and support of public schools were not adequately being met. It’s worth a reminder that during this time period America went through the Great Recession, starting in 2008, and the NC General Assembly went from Democratic control to Republican majorities in 2010.
  • In 2017, plaintiffs and the attorney general's office agreed that an independent consultant should be commissioned to offer a review and recommendations. Judge David Lee appointed West Ed, a California company, for the report in 2018. And in 2019 West Ed offered a detailed reportlaying out problems and possible solutions. The school districts and state then came to a settlement agreement in 2021, known as the comprehensive remedial plan.

What does the Comprehensive Remedial Plan call for?

The plan includes many spending provisions related to recruitment and retention of teachers and principals; equitable funding for disadvantaged students; and early education.

Among the biggest ticket items, the plan's budget calls for tens of millions of dollars to be spent on initiatives such as:

  • NC Teaching Fellows
  • NC Principal Fellows
  • the NC Pre-K program
  • Smart Start
  • funding for additional teachers and support staff
  • eliminating the caps on funding for students with disabilities and English language learners

In total the plan recommended allocating $6.8 billion during the subsequent eight years.

So the report comes out, money is appropriated, and problems improve, right!?

No. And, admittedly, it gets perhaps even messier at this point.

The legislature didn’t fully fund the remedial plan, so Judge Lee ordered a disbursement of funds — $1.7 billion from the state treasury to fund public schools more adequately. However, that ruling was challenged in court by the state comptroller. And the NC Court of Appeals agreed with her argument that Lee’s order should be invalidated because he did not have the authority to issue such a spending edict.

What can we expect to hear at the Supreme Court hearing on Wednesday?

You can watch the hearing on theSupreme Court of North Carolina's YouTube page on Wednesday at 9:30 a.m.

Plaintiffs are expected to argue that a remedy is long-overdue, and the court needs to mandate the comprehensive remedial plan — or some related improvements — be implemented soon. Advocates argue that the legislature has failed to meet its obligation to improve public school education in light of previous court rulings, and that the Supreme Court must force the legislature to appropriate additional funds.

And what about the defense?

First, it’s worth noting that when the case was originally filed — during the Clinton Administration — the Attorney General was the primary defendant. Only after Judge Lee ordered the transfer of funds did the legislature intervene and appeal some of what has transpired in the courts. Still, their contention is pretty simple: the state constitution grants the legislature sole power over appropriating money, the so-called purse strings.

Legislative defendants also argue that the courts have never ruled there was a statewide violation of the constitutional rights of children. In legal briefs they claim the case, and its remedy, should only pertain to a small part of the state.

Governor Roy Cooper’s Commission on Access to Sound, Basic Education met for the first time this week. Cooper created a commission of educational experts to inform consultants, who will submit a written report to the court to recommend how the state can u
Liz Schlemmer
This photo from 2017 shows a meeting between members of Gov. Roy Cooper's Commission on Access to Sound, Basic Education.

How long will these proceedings last?

90 minutes. The Supreme Court is an appellate court, and does not call witnesses or hold a trial, per se. The bulk of what justices can consider are in the legal briefs, of which there are many. And the two sides will make oral arguments.

Is there a prevailing expectation on how the court will rule?

This remains an open question. There are four Democrats and three Republicans on the bench. It is expected that all seven justices hear the case, despite calls for Phil Berger Jr. and Anita Earls to recuse themselves. Earls has previously been involved in the case as an attorney, and Berger is the son of Senate leader Phil Berger, Sr. who is a party to the case.

What happens after the hearing?

While it is true that the North Carolina Supreme Court is the highest bench in the state, there are notable caveats here. With two of the seven Supreme Court seats on the ballot this fall, it is well within the realm of possibilities that the power of the court shifts in 2023. And subsequent legal action, with a more favorable court, isn’t hard to imagine. And then, what if a verdict comes down that the legislature must appropriate several billion dollars in the subsequent fiscal years, but they don’t act? Then what happens is both unprecedented, and unclear.

We know that the court will release a ruling in the future, but when is uncertain. It could be months.

We know Supreme Court seats are up for election and the composition of the court could change. That might open the door for parties to try to send a decision back to the Supreme Court, although the current court's decision would set precedent in the case.

WUNC's Liz Schlemmer contributed to this report.

Jeff Tiberii is the co-host of WUNC's "Due South." Jeff joined WUNC in 2011. During his 20 years in public radio, he was Morning Edition Host at WFDD and WUNC’s Greensboro Bureau Chief and later, the Capitol Bureau Chief. Jeff has covered state and federal politics, produced the radio documentary “Right Turn,” launched a podcast, and was named North Carolina Radio Reporter of the Year four times.