Over 25 years ago, my family and I joined a lawsuit against the State of North Carolina involving low-wealth schools. Our motivation was simple: We cared deeply for our community of Raeford in Hoke County and we knew firsthand that my classmates and I were not receiving the educational opportunities we deserved.
That case has become known by our last name: the Leandro case.
The lawsuit was premised on two key questions: Does the N.C. Constitution guarantee all students the right to receive a sound basic education? And if so, were students in low-wealth counties receiving this opportunity?
My classmates and I did not need a court to answer the second question. We had seen the lack of opportunity with our own eyes. Each year, many of our best teachers left for wealthier school districts with better resources and higher salaries. When we traveled to other parts of the state, we saw that old metal trailers did not mark school campuses like they did ours.
We used tattered and outdated textbooks. On video feed, we watched while N.C. students from a wealthier district performed science labs because our school did not have the facilities or resources for us to complete the labs ourselves.
My classmates and I did not think we lacked the same opportunities as others; we knew it to be so.
In 1997, when the N.C. Supreme Court held that our state constitution does guarantee every child a right to a sound basic education, we felt vindicated. I assumed the matter would be quickly resolved. Surely, North Carolina would not continue a two-tiered education system where your place of birth determined the quality of your education.
I was wrong. In fact, testing data indicates that things have gotten worse since then, not better.
While elected officials from both parties have never committed the resources necessary to address the disparities, too often they have used our case as a political football. To be clear, our case was never about politics. Neither party is wholly blameless or at fault, and when in power neither party has fixed the problem.
I am hopeful that the time is right for both parties to come together to make good on the promise embedded in our constitution.
Over the last several years, North Carolina has worked with local and national education experts to create a comprehensive plan to address the needs of low-wealth schools and students. This is the first comprehensive plan developed by the state since we brought our challenge and the parties in the case all believe it has a reasonable chance to improve low-wealth schools and student outcomes.
The fact that there is a plan and that an N.C. Supreme Court judge has ordered it to be implemented is cause for optimism.
Some contend the plan is too costly and the state cannot afford to fix our schools. While the cost may be high, the state is in a strong fiscal position and has sufficient reserves to fully fund the plan.
More importantly, the investment we make in improving education for students in low-wealth counties today will be rewarded in the future with increased tax revenue and reduced spending on social programs. What we cannot afford is to continue to fail our most economically disadvantaged students and allow the status quo to continue for another 25 years.
Others have reacted to the plan by arguing that the court does not have the authority to order the state to implement it. That argument does little to help students in failing schools.
Instead of wasting valuable time litigating over the court’s authority, the N.C. General Assembly should eliminate the need for a judicial order altogether by uniting to support the plan and committing the financial resources necessary for it to succeed.
I am convinced that implementing the plan is the best opportunity we’ve had to solve this crisis. My sincere hope is that we move forward together, not as Democrats or Republicans, but as fellow North Carolinians, entrusted with providing a quality education to every child who calls this place home, whether it be in Raleigh or Raeford.
Robb Leandro is now a partner at Parker Poe, a regional law firm in the Southeast that represented the plaintiffs in the original Leandro lawsuit. He works in the Raleigh office and focuses his practice on health law.