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The Daily Tar Heel

20-year education lawsuit returns to NC courts

The latest hearing, which took place on Wednesday and Thursday, is part of the Leandro case, which began making its way through the courts in 1995.

The original case, presided over by Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr., determined that the state’s constitution requires all North Carolina students to receive a sound, basic education.

Twenty years later, Manning still holds hearings from time to time to check on the progress of North Carolina schools. After the state cut significant support from K-12 education, Manning last handed down a decision in 2011, mandating the state to provide prekindergarten education to any at-risk child who applies. The N.C. legislature appealed Manning’s decision, but the N.C. Court of Appeals upheld the order in 2012.

Last week’s hearing sought to ensure that students advancing to the next grade level are being adequately prepared after the state’s system for testing proficiency was changed.

Jason Langberg, supervising attorney at Legal Aid of North Carolina, said the hearings are meant to hold lawmakers and education officials accountable.

“He (Manning) asks tough but important questions at the hearings. The hearings have produced some useful data for folks to have a better understanding of these issues,” Langberg said.

Langberg said improvements need to be made to K-12 education, but so far not many concrete changes have resulted from the hearings.

“Ultimately the biggest issue we have in our public schools right now is funding and resources,” he said.

Terry Stoops, director of education studies at the right-leaning John Locke Foundation, said the court system doesn’t have the authority to fix funding issues.

“There is little that he can actually do to create policies and reforms that would remedy the Leandro complaints. That’s really vested in the legislature,” he said.

But Christine Bischoff, a staff attorney at the Education and Law Project at the left-leaning N.C. Justice Center, said she does believe funding and other changes can result from the hearings.

Bischoff, who attended the hearing, said it’s the court’s responsibility to step in and make some changes to education in the state.

“We’re talking about a constitutional right here, and it is the court’s job to interpret the constitution,” she said. “If the executive and legislative branches are denying kids their constitutional right, the court has to be a check on that.”

Langberg said the lack of resources limits some of North Carolina’s great educators in their ability to help students.

Lawmakers faced criticism for not raising teacher salaries for several years, but they enacted a raise in 2014 that bumped North Carolina from 46th to 32nd nationwide for teacher pay.

Stoop said he thinks the hearings allow Manning to understand new systems in the public schools, but they don’t necessarily benefit the public.

“I find that some of these hearings are really helpful for Judge Manning, but I’m not entirely sure that they’re helpful for anyone else.”

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