After more than twenty years of litigation, Wake County Superior Court Judge David Lee signed a consent order in Leandro v. State, adopting the recommendations of a study conducted by WestEd. The 34-page order, released January 21, 2020, reignited a divisive constitutional issue regarding separation of powers and the right to a sound education.
The Leandro legal battle began in 1994 after five rural school districts sued the State over their inability to provide an education equal to that of the urban school districts. Over the last twenty-six years, the plaintiffs have come to include large and very wealthy school districts. In the original 1997 Leandro case (Leandro I), the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that under the North Carolina State Constitution, schools must provide an opportunity to receive a “sound basic education” to every public-school student. The case was remanded to trial and ultimately returned to the North Carolina Supreme Court.
In the 2004 Leandro case (Leandro II), the NC Supreme Court affirmed the trial court ruling ordering the State to provide three things. Firstly, the State must provide a competent, certified, well-trained teacher teaching the standard course of study in every classroom. Secondly, the State must provide a well-trained competent principal with the leadership skills and ability to hire and retain competent, certified and well-trained teachers in every school. Finally, the State must provide the resources necessary to support effective instructional programming in every school so that the educational needs of all children, including at-risk children, are met.
When making its ruling in Leandro II, the Court ruled that the State had violated the State Constitution by not providing an opportunity for a sound basic education for all public school students. The Court chose to maintain control and oversee the State’s implementation of the remedy for the constitutional violation. Following the 2004 ruling, the State failed to meet the expectations of the Court, and finally in 2018, the Court approved a compliance study to be conducted by WestEd.
Where Are We Now?
The WestEd report was submitted to the Court in June of 2019 and ultimately released to the public on December 10, 2019. A little over a month later, Judge Lee signed the consent order mentioned above, adopting WestEd’s findings and recommendations. In doing so, Judge Lee ordered the “State Defendants to work expeditiously and without delay” in solving seven issues identified by WestEd.
WestEd Identified Seven Issues Concerning The Education System
Firstly, WestEd found that the school system lacked a system of teacher development and recruitment that ensures each classroom is staffed with a high-quality teacher who is supported with early and ongoing professional learning and provided competitive pay. Secondly, they found the system needed a system of principal development and recruitment that ensures each school is led by a high-quality principal who is supported with early and ongoing professional learning and provided competitive pay.
They went on to note that there was no evidence of a finance system that provides adequate, equitable, and predictable funding to school districts and, importantly, adequate resources to address the needs of all North Carolina schools and students, especially at-risk students as defined by the Leandro decisions. Fourthly, WestEd recommended the creation of an assessment and accountability system that reliably assesses multiple measures of student performance against the Leandro standard and provides accountability consistent with the Leandro standard.
Some additional concerns included the need for an assistance and turnaround function that provides necessary support to low-performing schools and districts. WestEd also recommended a system of early education that provides access to high-quality prekindergarten and other early childhood learning opportunities to ensure that all student at-risk of educational failure, regardless of where they live in the State, enter kindergarten on track for school success. Finally, they noted the need for an alignment of high school to postsecondary and career expectations, as well as the provision of early postsecondary and workforce learning opportunities, to ensure student readiness to all students in the State.
Judge Lee further ordered that a status report be submitted to the Court within 60 days of the Order, containing specific actions, including an “estimate of resources in addition to current funding,” that the State Defendants must implement in 2020 to address the issues above.
Organizations, such as the John Locke Foundation, voiced concerns with the section of the order requiring “a finance system” to be implemented and the fact that the Court will oversee it. Here, a finance system is the State budget, which is created by the General Assembly. Jeanette Doran, President of North Carolina Institute for Constitutional Law, believes that “Th[e] directives suggest the court may be considering an order specifying specific funding amounts.” According to the John Locke Foundation’s Vice President for research and Director of Education Studies, Dr. Terry Stoops, “that would absolutely be a constitutional crisis.”
The North Carolina Constitution contains a separation of powers clause, which states, “[t]he legislative, executive, and supreme judicial powers of the State government shall be forever separate and distinct from each other.” The North Carolina State Constitution § 143-C-1-2 states that “no money shall be drawn from the State treasury but in consequence of appropriations made by law. A law enacted by the General Assembly that authorizes the expenditure of money from the State treasury is an appropriation.” The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in Beaufort County Bd. of Educ. v. Beaufort County of Bd. of Comm’rs that there are scenarios in which the Judiciary can determine a necessary amount of funding for “a system of free public.” However, the Court limited this to situations where the General Assembly “seeks assistance, within proper limits, from its coordinate Branches.”
While both Parties in Leandro agree that the time has come to take decisive and concrete action, the exact method for deciding that action has several implications. The General Assembly has never been a party to the case and has never requested the assistance of the Judicial Branch resolving these issues.
Response to Concerns
The Court stated in 1997 that a clear showing that educational standards established by the State are not sufficient and “justify a judicial intrusion into an area so clearly the province . . . of the legislative and executive branches as the determination of what course of action will lead to a sound basic education.” It is the Judicial Branch’s duty to protect the guarantees of the Constitution, which includes the right of public school students to receive a sound basic education. Some may argue that judicial action is necessary where a constitutional violation continues after the legislative and executive branches have had a reasonable amount of time to resolve the issue. While this would require judicial activism, some may argue that it is acceptable to uphold the sanctity of the NC Constitution.
What Happens Now?
To date, the Court has not ordered any specific action for the General Assembly to adopt the budget recommendations of WestEd, and the people of North Carolina must wait to see what happens after submission of the status report. It is clear to all parties, however, that there is an ongoing constitutional violation, as public school students fight for their right to an opportunity for a sound basic education. The General Assembly has been called upon to rectify this problem, but in reality, it has been required to fix this issue since the first Leandro decision in 1997. There is no question that the General Assembly must make changes to the education system, but specific action regarding funding creates a constitutional separation of powers issue.
Judge Lee stated, “I’m bound by the laws of this case. I believe that means I’m bound by what the Supreme Court said back in 1997, that if somebody doesn’t do it, then the court has to do it, ill-equipped though it may be.” If Judge Lee were to make an order requiring the General Assembly to provide a specific amount of funding, it would potentially raise a separation of powers issue inconsistent with the law of the State Constitution. The General Assembly could avoid this conflict altogether if it proposed an acceptable plan before Judge Lee makes an order funding specific amounts.
While the Court has ordered expedient action, the history of Leandro tells us there is no actual guarantee that this will happen.