The last best hope for North Carolina’s public schools

Published July 28, 2022

By Rob Schofield

There is a bit of mythology that sometimes creeps into the way longtime supporters of North Carolina’s public education system describe the halcyon days of the late 20thCentury under the leadership of former Gov. Jim Hunt and Democratic legislators like former House Speaker Dan Blue and former Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight.

Especially when these well-meaning folks are decrying the disinvestment in public schools that has marked the last decade-plus of Republican rule at the General Assembly, there is a rose-tinted tendency to look back on the 1980’s and 90’s as a period in which the state’s public schools were all paragons of success and the envy of the nation.

The truth, of course, was more complex.

It’s true that the latter part of the last century was a time of great hope and optimism in many parts of North Carolina and one in which the state made steady and even inspiring progress in improving its schools – particularly in its more prosperous counties. Investments rose steadily, as did the pay and performance of teachers, the quality of facilities and, most importantly, student achievement.

All that said, in many locales, things were far from perfect – or even remotely adequate.

It’s this simple and sobering truth that: a) led a collection of plaintiffs from some of the state’s poorest and most deprived communities to file the landmark Leandro lawsuit in 1994, and b) convinced the state’s judiciary to declare the system that existed at the time unconstitutional.

By securing a state Supreme Court ruling that North Carolina schoolchildren were and are entitled to an opportunity to receive a sound basic education, the Leandro plaintiffs and their supporters hoped they would soon usher in a period in which the optimism and progress that was then found in many parts of the state would become a 100-county phenomenon.

Unfortunately, you know what happened next.

Comfortably large Democratic majorities at the Legislative Building started to ebb. A pair of harsh global recessions struck. The judge overseeing the case clung stubbornly to the notion that he could somehow cajole state officials into complying with their constitutional mandate through an endless sequence of court hearings, studies, reports, updates and scoldings.

And then the roof fell in.

New, large and bold Republican majorities took control of the General Assembly in 2011 and commenced an aggressive and ideologically driven campaign to reduce investments in public education and transfer a steadily growing share of the state’s schoolchildren out of traditional public schools. The devastation that followed has been deep and widespread.

And so here we are in 2022 at what feels very much like a moment that is definitive and, quite possibly, the last best hope for public education in our state.

NC Supreme Court

In the coming weeks, the North Carolina Supreme Court will, one more time, take up the Leandro case and, it is hoped here, decide at long last that it can and must order a resistant state legislature to take the action it has so long refused to take – namely, to adequately fund our public schools.

There is no doubt about what is necessary or possible at this point. Experts have labored long and hard to produce (and the trial court has approved) a comprehensive remedial plan that is designed to move the state into compliance by dramatically enhancing investments in an array of key areas. What’s more, thanks in large part to Biden administration’s economic recovery efforts, the state possesses a giant bank account that could easily cover the initial installment.

The only question now is whether it will happen or not and who will blink.

If a majority of the court’s seven justices musters the courage to exercise the tribunal’s equitable power to compel the legislature’s recalcitrant Republican leadership to act, there is a chance to stop the hemorrhaging that has afflicted the public schools in recent decades and, perhaps, begin to restore the health and sustainability of the state’s single most important and unifying public institution.

If, however, the court falters and decides that it lacks the authority to compel compliance with the Leandro mandate, then it seems all but certain that the water will soon be out of the tub. Nearly three decades of litigation and the countless court hearings, studies, and orders to which it gave rise will have been largely for naught.

Meanwhile, Republican legislative leaders like Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, now freed from any requirement to do other than that which they choose, will likely renew their slow, but steady campaign to privatize, “voucherize” and resegregate education by gradually starving traditional public schools and diverting the proceeds to favored private entities.

And the true friends and supporters of public schools – the ones who look back wistfully on the hopeful times of the late 20th Century – will likely sift through the wreckage of the past three decades and confront the harsh reality that they should have taken much stronger action when they had the chance.