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‘A battle for public education': Leandro case could impact future UNC students

Photo Courtesy of Every Child N.C.

When UNC first-year Keniya Black wanted to excel at her high school, she said she had to fight for it. 

As a low-income Black student in a rural N.C. public school, the opportunities and resources to pursue higher education were not the same as her white peers, she said.

“It felt a lot of times that my teachers, they kind of doubted me and my abilities to do this coursework that was at a higher level,” Black said. “I can't say for sure it was because I'm Black, or because I was a woman, but I did go to a predominantly white school, and I didn't really see the same treatment to those students.”

Her experiences are reflected in a larger legal battle currently being argued in the N.C. Supreme Court in Leandro v. State of North Carolina. The case, which is a subsequent case from one filed in 1994, examines K-12 students’ statewide access to a “sound basic education” in public schools and the state government’s responsibility in providing adequate funding to ensure this.

David Hinojosa, who represents the NAACP Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Branch as the case’s plaintiff intervenor, said much of the case is centered on statewide data that shows significant racial achievement gaps among K-12 students, including reading and mathematics proficiency levels. 

Sophomore Pragya Upreti, executive board member for the Affirmative Action Coalition, said this case is closely connected to UNC students. 

“One of the things that our team has realized recently is that K-12 students, in the state of North Carolina, particularly — they are our pipeline,” she said. “They're the students who will someday also be students of UNC-Chapel Hill, and we have an obligation to create a university that values their contributions as diverse students.”

The goal, Hinojosa said, is to ensure that high-achieving students, especially students of color at under-resourced schools, are not falling under the radar — which he said could be even more difficult now without the use of affirmative action in UNC’s admissions process.

Betsy McCandless, a counselor at Pamlico County High School, said this is something she focuses on in her role at a rural and lower-socioeconomic N.C. school.  

Her administration has been trying to be more intentional with class registration to address the lack of racial diversity in Advanced Placement classes, which she said can oftentimes be “mostly, if not completely, white students.” 

These concerns mirrored Black’s experiences at Franklinton High School, where she said AP classes could oftentimes feel inaccessible to students of color.

McCandless said more students of color pursue community college dual enrollment through the Career and College Promise program instead, because the courses tend to be easier than AP classes, but she said that path doesn’t necessarily prepare students as well for higher education.

Representation in AP classes is not only an issue in underfunded N.C. schools, however. 

Sophomore Stanley Wilson III said in many of his AP classes at Apex High School, he was one of the only Black students there. 

As a counselor, McCandless said she tries to educate students on the benefits of pursuing higher education, especially for first-generation students who may not have that type of support at home.

Overall, she said one of the most pressing issues is the need for additional funding to hire qualified teachers in under-resourced N.C. public schools. She said she sees the Leandro case at the forefront of this issue.

“We are in a battle for public education,” McCandless said. “And unfortunately, there are some that politically are against public education, and it feels as though they are doing everything they can to destroy public education in North Carolina from the inside out.”

Hinojosa shared similar sentiments on the pertinence of the case and the impact it may have on future generations of N.C. students and, in turn, UNC students. 

“How and why the [N.C.] Supreme Court may let the state off the hook in this case is going to imperil not only those students’ and families' education and potentially their future, but the future of North Carolina,” he said.

@dailytarheel |

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