The state of North Carolina is ultimately responsible for ensuring that each of its children has access to a sound basic education, a state judge declared last week in his fourth and final ruling in the state’s 8-year-old school finance case.
North Carolina must do more, he said, to provide well-trained teachers and administrators, as well as enough resources for delivering an effective instructional program.
While public school advocates celebrated the April 4 ruling for focusing on the children with the greatest needs, state officials were still trying to decipher how the decision would affect the state’s school finance system and the balance of power over local schools.
Still, the ruling left little doubt that the court expects action.
“The state of North Carolina must roll up its sleeves, step in, and utilizing its constitutional authority and power over the [local education agencies], cause effective educational change when and where required,” Judge Howard E. Manning Jr. of the Wake County Superior Court wrote in the bluntly worded 112-page ruling.
“It does not matter whether the lack of an equal opportunity to obtain a sound basic education is caused by teachers, principals, lack of instructional materials or other resources, or a lack of leadership and effort,” the ruling continues. “The state must step in with an iron hand and get the mess straight.”
To the disappointment of some, the judge did not say whether the state needs to increase its budget for education. But his ruling suggested that many school districts could use state money in a more cost-effective manner. The ruling leaves it up to the state to work with local districts to improve the educational program.
Some observers, however, said the decision would leave the state little choice but to pump more resources into its K-12 schools.
“This is an absolute slam-dunk for all children in North Carolina,” said Gregory C. Malhoit, the director of the Rural Education Finance Center in Raleigh, the state capital. “Judge Manning says that ... the state cannot stand back and point the finger at the local school systems” for failing to meet the educational needs of children at risk of failure.
“This is empowering to the state if they have the nerve to step up to it,” said John N. Dornan, executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a nonprofit research organization in Raleigh. “It essentially says it is your job and get busy.”
State officials, too, were pleased with the focus on disadvantaged students, but some leaders worried that the ruling could undermine local control over education.
“Philosophically, we are very much attuned to the needs of at-risk youth,” said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Michael E. Ward.
The state board of education has allocated considerable resources over the past several years to programs for struggling students, he said.
“But there is a potential in this ruling to upend North Carolina’s notion of who’s in charge of schools,” he added, by forcing the state to exert more control.
Mr. Ward also took issue with the judge’s suggestion that school funding may be adequate. The schools chief cited the state’s low ranking nationally in per-pupil funding.
Even though the state projects a shortfall of more than $1 billion in the overall state budget, he said, North Carolina needs to commit more money to schools. The state has the option of appealing the decision. Late last week, state officials said they had not yet been able to study the ruling and had not decided on the state’s response.
Judge Manning’s decision requires that the state file a report on its progress toward meeting the court’s expectations every 90 days.
The ruling came in a lawsuit brought in May 1994 by five low-wealth districts, which charged that the state was not providing adequate educational resources for disadvantaged children. A group of urban districts later joined the case, saying that they, too, were being underfunded.
The state sought to dismiss the complaint in Leandro v. State of North Carolina, and ultimately appealed to the state supreme court, which sent the case back for trial in the superior court in Raleigh to determine whether all children had access to a sound basic education.
After a six-week trial in the fall of 1999, Judge Manning issued a three-part preliminary ruling in the case. In the first two parts, both issued in October 2000, he concluded that the state’s education system was “sound, valid, and constitutional,” but that in order to provide equitable educational opportunities for all children, the state needed to set up a high-quality prekindergarten program for 4-year-olds deemed at risk of failing in school.
In the third part of the decision, issued in March 2001, Judge Manning found that disadvantaged students throughout the state were not being served appropriately by schools, not necessarily because of inadequate funding, but because North Carolina had no “coordinated, effective educational strategy” for addressing their needs.
The judge ordered the state to draw up a strategic plan for doing so. But the state appealed that part of the ruling. (“N.C. Ordered to Meet At-Risk Students’ Needs,” April 4, 2001.)
Praise for Efforts
The state has consistently argued that it is providing the necessary resources for an appropriate education for all children, but that school districts may not be applying the money effectively.
North Carolina also has earned wide praise for its school improvement efforts. The ABCs of Public Education initiative, passed by the legislature in 1996, set up a framework for a system of academic standards and accountability.
Some education experts in and outside the state have credited the system for significant improvements in student achievement based on several key indicators, including SAT scores and results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
A version of this article appeared in the April 10, 2002 edition of Education Week as Do More for Needy Students, N.C. Court Orders