Befuddled. That’s my reaction to an announcement earlier this week that two sides in the longstanding Leandro lawsuit had requested an independent consultant to identify additional steps for the state to take to improve public education in North Carolina. If you don’t remember Leandro v. State was the landmark ruling by the North Carolina Supreme Court that guaranteed all children have an opportunity for a sound basic education. Judge Howard Manning spent the last twenty years defining and refining what the decision meant for the state and the public schools.
In a written statement to the Raleigh News & Observer, Melanie Black Dubis, lead attorney for the plaintiff school districts in the ongoing case, said “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. A comprehensive detailed plan developed by an independent expert consultant is the first step to guaranteeing that we do not fail one more child.”
These developments raise a lot of eyebrows and questions.
For one, the timing of the announcement is curious. On July 21st Governor Roy Cooper issued an Executive Order to create the Governor’s Commission on Access to a Sound Basic Education. The mission of the commission will be to “undertake a comprehensive review, in conjunction with a subsequently selected independent consultant to assess the state of North Carolina’s ability to staff schools with competent, well-trained teachers and principals and the State’s commitment of resources to public education.”
I’m always a little wary when the phrase “independent consultant” is used, mostly because no one is totally independent. Other questions emerge. Does this mean the consultant and Commission – not the court — may now take the lead in finding how best to implement Leandro? I also find it interesting that none of the press reports mentioned Manning’s retirement last year, his intention to stay involved with the case or his failing health which recently caused him to back off the case. Last year Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin, appointed Superior Court Judge David Lee to handle the ongoing Leandro litigation. You have to wonder if both sides thought the private consultant and/or a Commission might provide a better option for making Leandro a reality for all school districts in North Carolina.
If you’re rethinking the future of the Leandro decision it would be a mistake to forget about the General Assembly. A good number of Republicans think Judge Manning’s rulings and pronouncements from the bench overstepped the boundaries of the court. And, they haven’t been shy about saying that the issue of how to establish a sound basic education is a question that should be decided by the legislature — not the courts. We also shouldn’t forget that a new commission will be meeting in the coming months to address school funding in North Carolina, an issue that certainly touches heavily on the Leandro decision.
So, what does it all mean? Could it be that those supporting the Commission and independent consultant are vying to be heard and jockeying for a seat at the table where those decisions are made? Whatever the reason, it seems the commitment to ensuring all students have an opportunity for a sound basic education is unwavering. However, determining who decides what that exactly means for students, staff and school districts remains as confusing as ever.