Long-running debate over NC school funding may be headed to ‘independent expert’

Superior Court Judge Howard Manning listens as a witness testifies at a Leandro education hearing in 2015.
Superior Court Judge Howard Manning listens as a witness testifies at a Leandro education hearing in 2015.

Signaling a new era in a long-running public school lawsuit, the two sides in the landmark Leandro case on Monday requested an independent consultant to suggest additional steps to the state to improve education for all children in North Carolina.

The announcement of a joint court motion came on the 20th anniversary of the state Supreme Court’s first ruling in the case, when it declared that the State Constitution guarantees every child “an opportunity to receive a sound basic education.”

After two decades of litigation, the plaintiff school districts and the state agreed to nominate an independent, “non-party” consultant to the court by Oct. 30, or, if they can’t agree on one, they’ll nominate three possibilities.

If the court concurs, the consultant will work to come up with a specific plan for meeting the court’s 2002 mandates in its second Leandro ruling – a well-trained, competent teacher in every classroom, a well-trained, competent principal in every school and enough resources that every child has an equal opportunity for education. Those mandates were upheld by the state Supreme Court in 2004.

It’s unclear what influence, if any, the consultant would have in the legislature, which allocates funding for education.

Also, last week, Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order creating the Governor’s Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education. Cooper said “it is far past time for the State to implement comprehensive, inter-disciplinary measures that allocate the resources necessary to ensure that the promise of a sound basic education for children in this State is realized.” Commission members will be appointed by the governor.

The consultant and the commission would work independently of each other and develop separate reports, according to Monday’s proposal to the court.

The consultant wouldn’t be a member of the commission but could attend meetings and will be given access to the panel’s evidence. The consultant would also develop information and could share it with the commission.

The consultant’s final recommendations would be due in 12 months, and then the commission would have 45 days to submit its own report. The commission is expected to seek private donations to help pay for the work of both the consultant and the commission.

Monday’s joint motion marked a turning point in the Leandro case, which began in 1994 when students, parents and school districts in five, low-wealth counties sued the state, claiming that students were being denied educational rights in the North Carolina Constitution.

For years, the court has monitored the state’s compliance with the two rulings, holding numerous hearings on education issues. The case has affected state funding and policies, but the court continued to cite severe deficiencies in the state’s education system.

Melanie Black Dubis, partner with Parker Poe, the lead counsel for the school districts, said Monday’s action by both sides represented a huge step forward.

“For decades, hundreds of thousands of North Carolina children have left our public schools not performing at grade level and therefore not having received a sound basic education,” Dubis said in a statement. “A comprehensive, detailed plan, developed by an independent expert consultant is the first step to guaranteeing that we do not fail one more child.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill