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When It Comes To Leandro, It's Not All About The Money

Diedra Laird
Charlotte Observer
Superior Court Judge Howard Manning presides over a hearing in the Leandro case in 2005.

You may have heard the phrase “a sound basic education.” North Carolina has the responsibility to give every child in the state an opportunity to one. It was one of the main findings of a long, protracted court case commonly called Leandro. That case confirmed North Carolina’s system for funding schools is good enough for most students, but that the state has failed its most vulnerable kids.

WFAE’s Lisa Worf took a closer look at Leandro, as part of a collaboration with NPR’s project on school funding. She wrote about North Carolina’s pre-kindergarten program that partly arose from that case. Lisa joins Morning Edition host Marshall Terry with a big-picture look at Leandro.


MT: Lisa, how did the Leandro case get started?

LW: Back in 1994, a handful of low-income districts sued the state arguing North Carolina was failing to provide an adequate education to all students, partly by failing to provide districts with enough money. The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled the state had a responsibility to deliver, “a sound basic education.” And the court left it to Superior Court Judge Howard Manning to decide whether that was indeed happening. In 2000, Manning ruled for the most part the state was making good on its promise, and part of that was the way it funded education. 

MT: How did he come to that conclusion?

LW: North Carolina is something of an exception when it comes to school funding. In most states, local property tax accounts for a large part of school money.  Here, the state provides about two-thirds of school districts’ budgets, so you don’t see as much variation in funding levels between districts as in some other states. Plus, at the time the state was already giving districts extra money for what it calls low-wealth districts (that includes many rural counties) and those serving lots of poor kids.   

MT: If North Carolina has a fairly equitable system for funding schools, why is this case still going on today?

LW: Because this case isn’t just about school funding. Manning was very firm about that. Here he is in 2011 speaking to the NC New Schools Project. 

MANNING: There’s still lawyers in this case today that think money is the panacea for everything. They still don’t understand this is not a money case. This is a quality case.

MT: So how do you judge quality? 

LW: Yes, that’s a much more complicated answer than just assigning a number to fix the problem. To assess that Manning looked at a lot of different things like curriculum, teacher certification, and, perhaps most importantly, test scores. Part of what this case did was cement level 3 on end-of-grade and course exams as one way to show students are getting a good education.  At that time more than a quarter of students weren’t making the grade and many of them were those Manning referred to as “at risk”- kids with disabilities, living in poverty, or learning English as a second language. And he concluded the state was failing them. 

MT: How did North Carolina try to remedy the problem?

LW: Manning made it clear the state couldn’t just write a check. It needed a plan. Free pre-school was a big part of it. The state began offering free pre-kindergarten to its most disadvantaged students. At peak enrollment in 2008, the state spent about $170 million to serve about 35,000 kids. Those numbers have dropped in recent years. The state also wanted to make it easier for struggling schools to attract good teachers, train them, and reduce class sizes, so they agreed to send some additional money to low-wealth counties and those like Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools with lots of kids from low-income families.

MT: So what kind of impact has Leandro had for students, especially low-income ones?

LW: That’s difficult to calculate.  Education policy and spending is so complicated and this is just one piece of the puzzle. If you look at how North Carolina students score on what’s called the nation’s report card, scores are higher overall, but that achievement gap between poor children and their better-off classmates is still just as wide. Eddie Speas, a lawyer who initially fought the lawsuit on behalf of the state says what it certainly did is this: it set a benchmark that the legislature has to meet to fulfill the state’s responsibility of offering all students a sound basic education. The courts continue to monitor that.