Filed Date: May 24, 1994
Clearinghouse coding complete
This is a case about the right to “sound basic education” under North Carolina’s constitution. In 1994, the school boards for five impoverished, underperforming counties, a student in one of these counties, and that student’s mother filed this lawsuit in North Carolina state court. The plaintiffs sued the State of North Carolina and the North Carolina State Board of Education for declaratory relief and injunctive relief. Invoking two provisions of the state constitution, the plaintiffs argued that the State was required to provide (1) adequate and (2) equal educational opportunities to the children of the State. More specifically, the complaint alleged that, because the State’s education funding system placed the responsibility for funding partially on local governments, the county boards did not possess the resources necessary to provide constitutionally adequate education and children in these counties did not receive educational opportunities equal to those of students in wealthier districts. In the last twenty-eight years, multiple judges have presided over this case. The current judge is David Lee.
After the original complaint was filed, the school boards for certain larger and wealthier counties, and students and parents in those districts, intervened in the lawsuit as plaintiffs. These boards also alleged that the State had failed to provide adequate educational opportunities. Specifically, the intervening plaintiffs argued that they could not adequately service the extraordinary needs of urban school districts under the existing state funding system. Additionally, they argued that North Carolina’s provision of supplemental state funds to impoverished rural counties but not urban/inner city districts was “arbitrary and capricious” and thus violated the state constitution’s Equal Protection Clause analogue.
The defendants moved to dismiss these complaints, arguing that the trial court did not have jurisdiction and that the plaintiffs had failed to state a claim for which relief could be granted. The trial court denied this motion, and the defendants appealed to the state court of appeals, which reversed. The court of appeals reasoned that the state constitution afforded a right to equal access to participation in the public school system but that it did not guarantee any particular standard of education or the equality of educational opportunities across districts.
In 1997, the plaintiffs appealed to the Supreme Court of North Carolina. The North Carolina Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals’ holding that the state constitution did not require a minimum standard of quality in education. It described the applicable standard as “sound basic education,” explaining that: “An education that does not serve the purpose of preparing students to participate and compete in the society in which they live and work is devoid of substance and is constitutionally inadequate.” The court, however, rejected plaintiffs’ contention that the state constitution required equal educational opportunities across school districts. The court explained that the constitution explicitly licensed the state legislature to design an education system dependent on local funding and explicitly empowered local governments to supplement state or federal funding by any amount. Because the constitution expressly contemplated these disparities in funding, the court concluded that its framers did not intend to require substantial equality of opportunity in all school districts. Additionally, the court noted that the requirement of substantial educational equality would be impossible to observe in practice. The North Carolina Supreme Court thus concluded the state constitution’s reference to equality was, instead, intended to protect the equal opportunity of all children to receive a sound basic education. Thus, the higher court affirmed the court of appeals on this issue. 346 N.C. 336.
Before sending the plaintiffs’ surviving claims back to the trial court, the North Carolina Supreme Court noted that crafting the State’s education system was the province of the political branches. It stated that, although the courts retained the ultimate interpretive authority, they should give deference to the political branches when assessing the soundness of the State’s educational system. The North Carolina Supreme Court also listed factors for assessing soundness, including: educational goals and standards adopted by the legislature, the level of performance of the children of the State and its various districts on standard achievement tests, and the State's general educational expenditures and per-pupil expenditures. The higher court stated that none of these factors were dispositive.
Between October 2000 and May 2001, the case continued in trial court. The court determined that the State had failed to provide students in Hoke County with the opportunity to obtain a sound basic education, and it directed the State to reassess its education-related expenditures to the county. The court also ordered the State to provide pre-kindergarten services to any at-risk prospective public school students in Hoke County. It found that there were a disproportionate number of at-risk children in Hoke County, that many of these children started their education at a severe disadvantage, and that these students were likely to stay or fall further behind their classmates as their schooling continued. The trial court additionally found that the State’s assistance to these prospective students was inadequate, which led to the failure of many of these students to avail themselves of the opportunity to obtain a sound basic education. The court thus ordered the State to provide pre-kindergarten services to at-risk prospective students.
In 2004, the State appealed, and the North Carolina Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal directly. The higher court stated that the evidence demonstrated unsatisfactory standardized test scores and, based on a decade of evidence, poor academic performance compared to other districts. The higher court thus concluded that the trial court had not erred by concluding that the State had failed to provide the opportunity for sound basic education or by ordering the State to assess its education-related expenditures to the county. 358 N.C. 605.
The North Carolina Supreme Court then noted that it agreed with the trial court’s legal and factual analysis with respect to at-risk children in Hoke county. The State was obligated to help prepare at-risk children approaching school age to “avail themselves of the opportunity to obtain a sound basic education” and that it had failed to adequately do so in Hoke County. Nevertheless, the North Carolina Supreme Court concluded that the trial court erred in ordering the State to provide pre-kindergarten to all at-risk children in the county. The trial court, in the higher court’s view, should not have required that the State take some particular response to fulfill its obligations to at-risk prospective students. That court did not possess the evidentiary basis to conclude that this requirement was the only way for the State to satisfy its obligation and, in such circumstances, imposing such a remedy infringed on the role of the political branches.
Nonetheless, the State had adopted a pre-kindergarten program after the trial court’s decision in 2001, and it continued administering the program after the state high court decision. The program, called “More At Four,” was designed to help at-risk children across the state prepare for kindergarten.
In 2005, another set of plaintiffs—students and parents from one of the counties already a party to the dispute—intervened in the case. These intervening plaintiffs sued the State and the county board for allegedly failing in their obligation to provide the opportunity to obtain sound basic education in impoverished schools in the district. In 2006, all but one of the wealthier, larger county boards—the one now being sued—dismissed their claims and left the case.
On May 4, 2011, the General Assembly of North Carolina altered statutory provisions pertaining to the State’s pre-kindergarten program, limiting access to the program for at-risk children. One of the provisions capped the percentage of at-risk children in the program and the other established a co-payment for these students. The trial court held a hearing on June 22, 2011, to assess these statutory changes in light of Leandro’s holding that the State must assist at-risk prospective students before public education officially begins in order to ensure their opportunity to obtain a sound basic education. On July 18, 2011, the court directed the defendants (1) not to execute any statutory provisions that would deny at-risk children access to the program and (2) to provide pre-kindergarten for any eligible at-risk children.
The State appealed, arguing that, per Leandro II, pre-kindergarten was not a required remedy to ensure the opportunity for a sound basic education. In 2012, however, prior to the court of appeals’ decision, the General Assembly eliminated one of the challenged provisions and significantly changed the other. But despite the General Assembly’s modifications, the court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s order. 222 N.C. App. 406. Rehashing the state high court’s holding in Leandro II, the court of appeals noted that the high court had held that the State was obligated to help prepare at-risk prospective enrollees to avail themselves of the opportunity to obtain a sound basic education. The North Carolina Supreme Court had also, the appeals court noted, reversed the trial court’s order to provide pre-kindergarten services to these children, explaining that designing a remedy was the job of the political branches. But the appeals court then explained that, unlike Leandro II, the trial court here did not itself decide the proper method for the State’s compliance with its obligation to at-risk children. Instead, in the eight years since the Leandro II Court’s reversal of the pre-kindergarten requirement, the State nonetheless chose pre-kindergarten services as its method of compliance with this obligation. Thus, the appellate court held that it was no longer inappropriate to order the State to provide pre-kindergarten services to at-risk children approaching school age.
The State appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court. In 2013, the Supreme Court of North Carolina reversed, holding that the case had been mooted by the General Assembly modifying the relevant statutory provisions prior to the time the appellate court rendered its decision. The high court explained that where the state legislature modifies statutory provisions in “material and substantial” ways to “get rid of a law of dubious constitutionality,” litigation over those provisions becomes moot. Because changes made to the pre-kindergarten provisions were “material and substantial,” the litigation became moot in 2012, prior to the appellate court’s decision. Thus, the North Carolina Supreme Court vacated the court of appeals’ opinion.
After this decision by the state high court, the parties continued fighting over the State’s compliance with Leandro I and Leandro II in the trial court. On March 7, 2015, the court concluded that eleven years and twenty evidentiary hearings had occurred since the decision in Leandro II but that “in way too many school districts across this state, thousands of children in the public schools have failed to obtain and are not now obtaining a sound basic education as defined and required by the Leandro decision.” In April 2015, the court thus directed the defendants to create a “definite plan of action” to remedy ongoing state constitutional violations. On July 1, 2015, the defendants filed the plan, and the plaintiffs subsequently objected to its sufficiency.
When the State Board of Education moved to be dismissed as a defendant in July 2017, the trial court again reviewed the record and found that “the evidence before this court…is wholly inadequate to demonstrate…substantial compliance with the constitutional mandate of Leandro measured by applicable education standards.” Thus, the court denied the Board’s motion on March 13, 2018.
Also in July of 2017, the Governor issued the first of two executive orders forming a commission (the Governor’s Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education) to ensure that the State complied with Leandro. (The second order was issued on November 15, 2017.) On the first of February 2018, the court granted a joint motion to schedule the selection of an independent consultant to work alongside the Governor’s Commission, as outlined in the executive order. The court picked WestEd as independent consultant on March 7, 2018.
On October 4, 2019, WestEd filed its final report on North Carolina’s system of public education and recommended reforms. Focusing on this report, the district court once again found that North Carolina’s public education system was not in compliance with Leandro. In a January 21, 2020 consent order, the court directed the defendants to work “expeditiously and without delay” to implement seven key goals: (1) a system of teacher development, (2) a system of principal development, (3) a finance system that provides “adequate, equitable, predictable” funding to school districts, (4) a system to accurately assess multiple measures of student achievement, (5) a program to provide assistance and support to under-performing schools and districts, (6) a high quality early education/pre-kindergarten program, and (7) the alignment of high school education to higher education and career expectations. The consent order also directed the parties to file (1) a status report, by March 2020, describing the reforms that the defendants should implement that year and (2) an eight-year comprehensive remedial plan, detailing actions to be taken by or before 2028 to ensure compliance with Leandro by 2030.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the parties filed the status report, initially scheduled for March 2020, on June 15, 2020. The parties detailed reforms that the State would take in fiscal year 2021 to meet the goals set out in the January 2020 order and start the process of achieving compliance with Leandro. On September 11, 2020, the trial court revised the consent order to incorporate the actions set out in the year-one plan. This order also required the defendants to submit quarterly status reports. In a later order, the court noted that the defendants filed their first status report on December 15, 2020 and had already implemented some of the reforms listed in the year-one plan.
On March 15, 2021, the parties filed the comprehensive plan. According to the trial court, the plan drew upon research and recommendations from WestEd and the Governor’s Commission. As mentioned, the plan included detailed steps that the State agreed to implement by 2028 to ensure that it was in compliance with Leandro by 2030. The plan also featured a timeline for implementing the included actions, an estimation of additional appropriations that would be needed to carry out the plan, and a recommendation for the plan’s supervision.
On April 13, 2021, the trial court held a status conference to review the plan with the parties. On June 7, 2021, the court ordered the defendants to implement the plan in accordance with the established timeline. The court also noted that the steps in the year-one plan that the State had not yet accomplished had been added to the comprehensive plan.
Subsequent proceedings appear to have dealt with budgetary disagreements; the Clearinghouse was unable to locate these court documents.
Evan Gamza (5/21/2022)
Last updated Aug. 30, 2023, 2:58 p.m.Docket sheet not available via the Clearinghouse.
State / Territory: North Carolina
Filing Date: May 24, 1994
Case Ongoing: Yes
County school boards, students, and guardians
Public Interest Lawyer: Unknown
Filed Pro Se: Unknown
Class Action Sought: No
Class Action Outcome: Not sought
Causes of Action:
Prevailing Party: Plaintiff
Nature of Relief:
Source of Relief:
Form of Settlement:
Order Duration: 2021 - 2028