Judge Manning fought the good fight to ensure poor children got a ‘sound, basic education’

Judge Howard Manning Jr.
Judge Howard Manning Jr. cseward@newsobserver.com

When Howard Manning Jr., called “Howdy,” was coming along in Raleigh, he had his role model close at hand. His father, Howard Sr., was one of Raleigh’s most famous general practitioners of the legal craft. He was called upon by the state on occasion to handle tough investigations. Three of his four sons took after him in the law.

The namesake made his mark as a tough, straight-ahead judge, but in 1994 came a lawsuit from five underfunded school districts in the state that would come to be known simply as “Leandro.” That would be the case that in some ways defined Manning’s career. The state Supreme Court ruled in the case that children in the state had a constitutional right to a “sound, basic education.” In 1997, Chief Justice Burley Mitchell, like Manning a tough, plain-spoken judge, assigned Manning to ensure that the Leandro constitutional mandate would be fulfilled even in low-wealth schools.

Manning planned to keep hold of Leandro after his retirement last year, but health issues have caused him to go off of the case.

Retired Superior Court Judge David Lee has been assigned Leandro by current Chief Justice Mark Martin.

The disparities in North Carolina’s public schools, when comparing rural, underfunded schools with those in places like Wake County, where resources are better and teacher supplements are higher, are embarrassing. Manning made it clear that the state must provide an adequate education and must monitor all schools to see that the promise of that education is delivered.

The state owes him a profound debt. Few have served the judiciary and the people better.

Just last spring, Manning issued another stern admonition to state education officials for not doing enough to answer the uneven performance in some schools. He spoke of a Durham classroom where children weren’t meeting standards and said, “... every day that those children are in that classroom, you can’t blame it on them. They didn’t want to go there, they didn’t ask to be born into that situation, but they’re there and they’re our responsibility. Every day that they’re in that classroom, they are not obtaining a sound, basic education. They’re not even getting the opportunity.” He’s been equally tougher when talking about state legislators, sometimes indicating he’d find them in contempt if he could.

The judge sometimes got in his car and went to underfunded districts, sitting in classrooms, talking to school personnel. That is how seriously he took his task. That is how much he cared. He’d seen in sentencing criminal defendants the connection between quality education, or the lack of it, and the likelihood of going to jail.

But now the question is, will the judge’s great efforts be rendered moot by the actions of a General Assembly Republican majority that seems to hold mainstream public education in low esteem?

GOP leaders have opened the gates for virtually unlimited charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate outside the rules of conventional schools and often are imbalanced in racial and socioeconomic diversity. Those same lawmakers started and now have expanded a voucher program, public funds for private schools, that they fully intend to make available, eventually, to all parents — something that will drain needed funding from the conventional schools to which most North Carolina families send their children. (Vouchers initially went to low-income families. Charters started as experimental laboratories that were intended to explore alternative teaching methods and curricula that might be used in regular public schools.)

Republicans gave state public school teachers a raise, this year, it’s true, but the state’s pay rate remains anemic, and many teachers see the raise for what it was — an election year gambit.

Nevertheless, a war is won in a series of battles, and Manning fought his valiantly. More money has been put into lower-wealth schools, but far from enough and unevenly and without the big, long-term commitment that is needed. North Carolina’s poorer districts will be looking to Judge Lee for an aggressive stance patterned after Manning, and for the long term. No child must be cheated of a good education because of money, and no district should be starved just because of where it is. Manning understood those principles — he helped to define them.