The battles over school funding often dissolve into partisan bickering.
But people hoping to use Robb Leandro as a political football for either side should look elsewhere.
You might know his name. Leandro vs. the State of North Carolina, decided in 1994, was a landmark case guaranteeing equal education for the state’s students.
Though Republicans in the General Assembly have been criticized for sweeping changes to public education, they weren’t in charge when Leandro’s Hoke County family and several school systems sued the state.
“All those years, we weren’t fighting against a Republican legislature and Republican governor,” Leandro says.
He says the case more concerned funding for rural districts vs. wealthier ones.
The case quietly runs in the background whenever funding comes up. Two Cumberland County school board members cited costs related to fighting for Leandro when they voted Monday against joining a lawsuit over public money paying for private school vouchers. The measure passed 5-2. (A superior court judge halted the voucher program Friday afternoon.)
The Leandro case safeguards the state’s commitment to pre-kindergarten programs.
Leandro, the person, was a high-performing student whose mother lamented he did not have access to the academic resources of other school systems. Plaintiffs, including the Hoke and Cumberland school districts, argued that the state constitution required that every child be given a sound, basic education.
Leandro says having his family’s name on the case can be “surreal.”
He says: “Sometimes I’ll give people my credit card and they’ll say, ‘I’ve heard of that name.’”
He’s now a 35-year-old lawyer at Parker Poe in Raleigh, specializing in administrative health care law. He graduated from Duke University and Vanderbilt University Law School.
People ask how he built such a solid resume, despite the inadequacies of the Hoke County school system. He cites his parents, John and Kathy. Parents make the difference, he says, “rich or poorer, middle class or lower.”
“Now that we’re holding schools accountable, I’d love to figure out ways to hold parents accountable. That would be hard to legislate, obviously.”
Leandro is a married father of two girls. They are not school-aged yet, but he says getting older has affected how he looks at education.
For instance, he understands why public schools oppose money going to vouchers. But 4,000 students applied for them. He says that shows they were dissatisfied with their schools.
“If the voucher system is not the answer, there has to be an answer,” he says.
He believes the issue of teacher tenure, the subject of another lawsuit, is important but “doesn’t have anything to do with students.”
He says broader social issues limit what politicians and school officials can do.
“We still have kids getting lost,” he says. “I really believe this case says, ‘Throw politics out the door.’ This is about kids. Individual kids.”