Education

NC is still not providing many children a sound basic education, judge says

Attorney Jim Exum, a former Supreme Court chief justice argues in front of the NC Supreme Court on Oct. 15, 2013 in Raleigh, NC. The state Supreme Court listened to arguments that could determine the future of public preschool in North Carolina as part of the long-running Leandro case.
Attorney Jim Exum, a former Supreme Court chief justice argues in front of the NC Supreme Court on Oct. 15, 2013 in Raleigh, NC. The state Supreme Court listened to arguments that could determine the future of public preschool in North Carolina as part of the long-running Leandro case. cliddy@newsobserver.com

A judge has refused to drop the State Board of Education from a long-running public school lawsuit because he says hundreds of thousands of North Carolina students still aren't getting their constitutional right to a sound basic education

The State Board of Education had asked to be dropped from the Leandro court case because it says North Carolina has made improvements since the state Supreme Court declared in 1997 that the state constitution guarantees every child “an opportunity to receive a sound basic education."

In an order released Tuesday, Superior Judge David Lee wrote that the state board failed to present convincing evidence that North Carolina is moving closer to providing students with their fundamental rights guaranteed in the state constitution.

"There is an ongoing constitutional violation of every child’s right to receive the opportunity for a sound basic education," Lee wrote. "This court not only has the power to hear and enter appropriate orders declaratory and remedial in nature, but also has a duty to address this violation."

The ruling was hailed by Melanie Black Dubis, partner with Parker Poe, the lead counsel for the school districts suing the state and the state board.

"It confirms that, notwithstanding changes and State Board initiatives over the years, there remains an ongoing constitutional violation because all children are not being provided the opportunity to achieve a sound basic education," Dubis said in an email message.

School districts in five counties – Hoke, Halifax, Robeson, Vance and Cumberland – sued in 1994, leading to two major state Supreme Court decisions.

In addition to the 1997 ruling, the Supreme Court held in 2004 that the state’s efforts to provide a sound basic education to poor children were inadequate. The court did not prescribe specific solutions; that was left up to legislators and education leaders.

Lee was assigned the job of overseeing the case in 2016 when retired Superior Court Judge Howard Manning asked for the case to be reassigned.

In July, both sides in the case requested an independent consultant to suggest additional steps to the state to improve education for all children in North Carolina. Dubis said that Lee has indicated he signed an order appointing WestEd, a nonprofit research group, to serve as the outside independent consultant.

In February, Lee heard arguments from the state board to be dismissed from the lawsuit, which would have left the state as the sole defendant. Attorneys for the state board argued that major steps had been taken to help at-risk students, such as creation of the Read To Achieve program to help get children proficient in reading by the end of third grade.

Attorneys also said that the state board should be dropped since it doesn't have any authority to appropriate money.

But in his ruling, Lee wrote that the state board is not supervising and administering a public school system that is compliant with the Leandro decisions.

"The court record is replete with evidence that the Leandro right continues to be denied to hundreds of thousands of North Carolina children," Lee said.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

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