Ford

On education, tell it to the judge

Editorial Page EditorJune 26, 2011 

Dragged kicking and screaming pretty much describes North Carolina officials as they were pressured over the years through the courts to upgrade education for thousands of children in poor counties. But in a triumph for our system of government, the right of those children - all the state's children, in fact - to have access to decent schooling finally was affirmed.

Ever since, there has been a measuring rod by which to gauge whether the public schools are meeting their bottom-line responsibility to help prepare a new generation for its looming challenges.

Hauling out that measuring rod can be a nasty job, but somebody has to do it. Judge Howard Manning Jr. has had no shortage of practice.

So there was Manning last week, in his Wake County Superior Court digs, listening to the latest version of a familiar refrain: Education budget cuts will drop the state into the impermissible danger zone where children are deprived of the opportunities to which they're entitled. It was the latest phase in a lawsuit whose name has been on Tar Heels' lips for the better part of two decades.

The Leandro case was brought in 1994 by five counties - Hoke, Halifax, Cumberland, Robeson and Vance, all of them well-known as places where rural poverty has exerted an iron grip. Their suit resulted in the monumental 1997 state Supreme Court holding that children have the right not merely to go to school, but to get an equal shot at an adequate education while they're there. A "sound basic" education, as then-Chief Justice Burley Mitchell put it.

Manning was assigned to determine whether students were being shortchanged. After a 1999 trial focusing on conditions in Hoke County, he issued three decisions that represented a dogged feat of inquiry and fact-finding. (An excellent recap of the case, on which I've drawn, was put together by Robert Spearman of Raleigh, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, as a chapter for a 2009 book on school finance litigation around the country.)

The judge's core ruling: In Hoke and by extrapolation in similar counties, students had no reliable access to a sound basic education and corrective steps were needed.

Lawyers for the state fought that conclusion up the line. But in 2004 the Supreme Court in another unanimous ruling agreed with Manning and put the onus not on the hard-pressed counties or on school personnel, but squarely on the state itself.

Fast-forward seven years, to the thrilling aftermath of the recession that's supposed to be over but that continues to play havoc with jobs, home values, profits and government revenues.

A Republican-led General Assembly makes deep cuts in education spending as part of its budget-balancing scheme. Leandro plaintiffs saddle up one more time. A specific complaint aired in Manning's courtroom had to do with changes to the More at Four pre-kindergarten program - a program for which former Gov. Mike Easley would be eager to be remembered.

More at Four gives an early academic boost to as many as 40,000 children considered otherwise at risk of academic failure, mainly because their families are poor. It's now offered at no charge. Legislators in their wisdom slashed funding by $32 million and decided to impose a co-payment amounting to 10 percent of gross income for a family of three. It's not hard to imagine people deciding that kind of expense would put the program out of reach.

Back when he was weighing whether the state's education programs met the constitutional standard, Manning connected crucial dots. He concluded that at-risk children faced so many obstacles that they could not reasonably hope to take proper advantage of school unless they were given a boost before even starting kindergarten.

Spearman, in his recap, noted that the state "had attempted to blame at-risk children for their failures and to attribute those failures to 'lack of effort, too much television, lack of homework and lack of innate ability.'" That didn't fly with Manning, who said such kids needed more help if they were to avoid falling hopelessly behind.

A good pre-kindergarten program was a key piece of the puzzle. So in 2000 he laid on a requirement that the state expand its pre-K efforts to serve all at-risk 4-year-olds. Surely Mike Easley's administration was responding to that call.

Manning is sensitive to his role as judge, not legislator, and the state now argues that cutting and reshaping More at Four should be legislators' decision to make. The underlying commitment to education remains strong, the state's lawyers assert.

But Howard Manning has heard it all before. Not only in scaling back More at Four but also in forcing school districts to make other large spending cuts, the General Assembly raises the same kind of issues that the judge found so troubling when he first delved into them in the late 1990s.

At least this legislature will not be let off the hook without a cold-eyed reckoning of whether its budget strategy amounts to a heedless, destructive plunge into the constitutional ditch.

Editorial page editor Steve Ford can be reached at 919-829-4512 or at steve.ford@newsobserver.com.

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