The Last Best Hope for North Carolina Public Schools
There’s a bit of mythology that sometimes creeps into how longtime proponents of North Carolina’s public education system describe the halcyon days of the late 20e Century under former Governor Jim Hunt and Democratic lawmakers like former House Speaker Dan Blue and former Senate Speaker Temporary Marc Basnight.
Especially when these well-meaning folks decry the disinvestment in public schools that marked the last decade-plus of Republican rule in the General Assembly, there is a rosy-tinged tendency to view the 1980s and 1990s as a time when State public schools were all models of success and the envy of the nation.
The truth, of course, was more complex.
It is true that the latter part of the last century has been a time of great hope and optimism in many parts of North Carolina and during which the state has made steady and even inspiring strides in improving of its schools, especially in its more prosperous counties. Investments have increased steadily, as have teacher pay and performance, the quality of facilities and, most importantly, student outcomes.
That said, in many places things were far from perfect – or even remotely adequate.
It is this simple, sobering truth that: a) led a group of plaintiffs from some of the poorest and most deprived communities in the state to file the landmark Leandro trial in 1994, and b) convinced the state judiciary to declare the system that existed at the time unconstitutional.
By obtaining a ruling from the State Supreme Court that North Carolina schoolchildren had and are entitled to receive a solid basic education, the Leandro the plaintiffs and their supporters hoped that they would soon usher in a period in which the optimism and progress then found in many parts of the state would become a phenomenon in 100 counties.
Unfortunately, you know what happened next.
Large, comfortable Democratic majorities in the Legislature began to ebb. A pair of harsh global recessions hit. The judge handling the case stubbornly clung to the idea that he could somehow persuade state officials to comply with their constitutional mandate through an endless streak hearings, studies, reports, updates and reprimands.
And then the roof collapsed.
Large and bold new Republican majorities took control of the General Assembly in 2011 and launched an aggressive, ideological campaign to cut investment in public education and move a growing share of the state’s schoolchildren out of public schools. traditional. The devastation that followed was deep and widespread.
And so here we are in 2022 at what looks very much like a definitive moment and, quite possibly, the last best hope for public education in our state.
In the coming weeks, the North Carolina Supreme Court will once again take up the Leandro case and, hopefully here, finally decide that he can and must direct a resilient state legislature to take the action it has so long refused to take – namely, to adequately fund our public schools.
There is no doubt what is necessary or possible at this point. Experts worked long and hard to produce (and the trial court approved) a comprehensive turnaround plan designed to bring the state into compliance by dramatically increasing investment in a range of key areas. Plus, thanks in large part to the economic stimulus efforts of the Biden administration, the state has a giant bank account that could easily cover the down payment.
The only question now is whether or not it will happen and who will flash.
If a majority of the court’s seven justices muster the courage to exercise the court’s equitable power to coerce recalcitrant Republican leaders in the legislature into action, there is a chance to stop the bleeding that has afflicted public schools in the decades and, perhaps, begin to restore the health and sustainability of the state’s most important and unifying public institution.
However, if the court hesitates and decides that it does not have the power to require compliance with the Leandro mandate, then it seems almost certain that the water will soon be out of the tub. Nearly three decades of litigation and the countless hearings, studies and orders to which they gave rise will have been largely in vain.
Meanwhile, Republican legislative leaders like Senate Leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, now freed from any obligation to do anything other than what they choose, will likely renew their slow but steady campaign to privatize, “enhancing” and resegregating education by gradually starving traditional public schools and diverting profits to privileged private entities.
And the true friends and supporters of public schools – those who look back wistfully on the hopeful times of the late 1920se Century – will likely sift through the rubble of the past three decades and face the stark reality that they should have taken much stronger action when given the chance.