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Not far from Fayetteville, North Carolina, in a part of the state many know only from driving through on their way to Wilmington or Myrtle Beach, sits Raeford, a little town in Hoke County where life once centered around agriculture and manufacturing. Those sectors employed fewer and fewer people over the last quarter of the twentieth century. By the 1990s "The only thing left was a little bit of Burlington Mills," says Kathleen Leandro of a textile plant in the town. "That was about it as a tax base."

Kathleen and her husband relocated to Raeford from nearby Ft. Bragg when he retired from the military after Vietnam. That's where they raised their two sons, Scott and Robb, making sacrifices to support their kids' education when school resources fell short. "We didn't have a big middle-class to pull from," says Kathleen of Raeford. "There were hard-working families but that didn't bring a lot of money into the schools."

That meant that the kids in the Hoke County school district didn't get the same education as peers in different counties. "We would watch other schools perform labs via the internet, and think this was super cool and advanced," Robb says, remembering his AP Chemistry and Biology classes in high school. "After I got into college I started realizing that wasn't cool, that was ridiculous. I should have been doing those labs."

While still in high school, Robb Leandro became a plaintiff in a landmark case challenging the sort of education inequality he experienced. More than 20 years later, Leandro v. State is still playing out, and it still has the potential to change the course of education in North Carolina, and the United States.

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When he was in high school, Robb Leandro became the lead plaintiff in Leandro v. State, a case that has yet to reach a conclusion more than 20 years later. Photo by Sammy Hanf.

Children have a constitutional right to receive a "sound basic education," ruled Chief Justice Burley Mitchell of the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1997, three years after school districts in five low-wealth counties, including Hoke, filed the first complaint in Leandro. Mitchell found that in the state's poorest counties there were, "inadequate school facilities with insufficient space, poor lighting, leaking roofs, erratic heating and air conditioning, peeling paint, cracked plaster, and rusting exposed pipes."

Books and technologies were outdated, poorer districts couldn't compete for the best teachers, and a hiring disadvantage led to larger class sizes. The plaintiffs alleged that test scores reflected the inadequacy and showed that "the great majority of students" were failing basic subjects such as science, English and math. Mitchell asserted that, regardless of where they're born or what they're parents do for a living, each child has the right to be educated.

But, what does that require? And, how do we pay for it? That's been the subject of endless litigation and superior court findings after the case was sent back down to the trial court level. Meanwhile, the student-plaintiffs grew up and had children of their own, and the judges retired. The case got lost in the news as gerrymandered maps and bathroom bills dominated headlines.

Then, last year on July 24––twenty-years to the day after Justice Mitchell issued his opinion––the parties filed a joint-motion requesting the appointment of an independent consultant, and recommendations to make Leandro's promise a reality.

Due next March, the consultant's report, and the work of a commission appointed by the governor could become a court order impacting thousands of school children across North Carolina. That would finally bring closure to the lawyers and families who've spent more than two decades of their lives waiting to make a difference.

Robb Leandro was a talented student and his family was constantly involved in school activities, helping to fill the gaps where the school system wasn't able to provide resources. "We didn't have but one activity bus in the whole county," says Kathleen, who regularly loaded students into the Leandro van to attend science fairs.

Because Robb stood out as a star student (he would graduate as valedictorian and go on to play football at Duke Univeristy) he was approached by the county's superintendent of schools Bill Harrison, who attended church with the family. Harrison was looking for a student to serve as the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that an attorney named Gerry Hancock was putting together.

Hancock was a lawyer for the Low Wealth Schools Consortium, an organization of local school-systems from impoverished areas of the state. In 1993, Hancock had convinced Harrison and the school superintendents in four other counties to sue the state for failing to meet its obligation to students.

"Some children come to school from well-educated or privileged families and they're well on their way," says Hancock, who is still involved in the case. "Other children don't have those advantages…When people suffer for a long period of time and their schools don't have as many courses, and they have trouble paying teachers, they realize their system offers less opportunity."

"We didn't have but one activity bus in the whole county," says Kathleen, who regularly loaded students into the Leandro van to attend science fairs.

"That caused the lawsuit to be filed," he explained.

Upon Hancock's advice, the superintendents hired Bob Spearman, an attorney from the prestigious Parker Poe Firm in Raleigh. In the spring of 1994 Spearman launched Leandro, alleging that the state's method of funding schools denied plaintiffs their right to "adequate educational opportunities."

By the time Leandro was decided by the North Carolina Supreme Court, Robb was a senior in high school.

"It took nine months to write Leandro," said Chief Justice Mitchell, 1999 who began his career working on school desegregation in the early 1970s before serving on the court from 1982 to 1999. "I was trying to get it right and be aware of what was going on around us."

According to the North Carolina Constitution, "The people have a right to the privilege of education, and it is the duty of the State to guard and maintain that right." It goes on to say that the legislature is responsible for funding public schools "wherein equal opportunities shall be provided for all students." The question of Leandro became: was there a minimum standard to be met?

"We answer that question in the affirmative and conclude that the right to education in the state constitution is a right to a sound basic education," wrote Mitchell. "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 constitutionally inadequate."

Justice Mitchell outlined what constituted a sound basic education, including: the ability to read and write; knowledge of the fundamentals of math and science; skills that enable students to engage in post-secondary education or vocational training; and skills that enable students to compete on an equal basis with others in further education and work.

But the Court fell short of determining that the constitution required equal education funding at the county level. Justice Robert Orr wanted to get there, and dissented in part. "I wasn't sure how much teeth the decision actually had, maybe more a pyrrhic win than a real win for the plaintiffs," he explained in an interview.

Still, setting a "sound basic education" as a minimum standard was monumental. Then came the hard part: determining whether North Carolina was meeting that standard in the lives of actual children, and whether the Leandro parties were entitled to any relief.

The case went back to the trial court level and was placed in the care of Superior Court Judge Howard Manning (known to friends as "Howdy") who would oversee the matter for nearly twenty-years.

After four years of findings and trial court hearings and a focus on pre-K issues, Manning ruled in 2002 that North Carolina wasn't providing that sound basic education, and the case went back to the Supreme Court with the stakes even higher.

"One of the things that really struck me was the trial evidence of high school graduates giving testimony about going into the workforce…Many of them were totally unqualified and had to be retrained with basic educational skills."

Manning had ruled that North Carolina must provide every public school student with "a competent, certified, well-trained teacher who is teaching the standard course of study" and a "well-trained competent Principal with the leadership skills and ability to hire and retain competent, certified and well-trained teachers." But he also ruled that the state must provide the "resources necessary" for every child to obtain a sound basic education.

Justice Orr wrote the opinion affirming Manning. "One of the things that really struck me was the trial evidence of high school graduates giving testimony about going into the workforce," said Orr. "Many of them were totally unqualified and had to be retrained with basic educational skills."

Justice Orr retired hours after deciding the case.

For students in North Carolina's poorest counties, the law was on their side and things were supposed to change.

Protesting teachers packed the streets of Raleigh in May 2018. Photo via Hoke County Schools Facebook page.

"Leandro sets the bar but you still need to have elected officials, school officials and court officials willing to uphold it," Orr said in an interview. In the years following his ruling, that didn't happen.

One reason was the Recession, and the ensuing budget cuts. But even once the economy stabilized, the state's Republican controlled legislature continued to slash education funding. Last spring, teachers fought back, rallying at the capitol until lawmakers passed a modest salary raise for educators. But that doesn't address the requirements laid out in Leandro.

"The original Leandro opinion said you need to give deference to the legislative branch," says Larry Armstrong an attorney who represents Halifax County schools. "How long do you need to give deference? Twenty-years? That's long enough."

The election of Democratic Governor Roy Cooper in 2017 was a turning point for the languishing case. "After 24 years Governor Cooper is the first Governor to say, 'We need to fix this, let's talk,'" says Armstrong. In July, 2017, Cooper established the Governor's Commission on Sound Basic Education to come up with a plan for enforcing Leandro. Days later, the parties in the lawsuit requested, and were granted, a court-appointed consultant to do the same.

Now the court appointed consultant, WestEd, a nonpartisan research agency from California, and the governor's 19-member commission are working separately on Manning's ordered requirements: competent teachers and principals and "the resources necessary to ensure that all children, including those at risk, have an opportunity to obtain a sound basic education."

"It's as good a shot as we've got," says Mitchell of the developments.

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Black Dubis first worked on the Leandro case as a summer law clerk at Parker Poe in 1994. Now she is the lead counsel for the lawsuit. Photo by Sammy Hanf.

WestEd will present their report next March, and Governor Cooper's commission will have 45 days after that to make their recommendations.

"I predict the recommendations are going to be significant," said Melanie Black Dubis, who took over as lead counsel for the Leandro plaintiffs after Spearman died. Dubis began her legal career as a summer law clerk at Parker Poe in 1994 when the case was filed.

"Then any number of things could happen," she added. "The court may order the State of North Carolina to take action that will require both the administration and legislature to follow through."

"The courts can only go so far," warned Mitchell, about the separation of powers. "That's exactly what the Supreme Court knew in Brown and they fortunately had Dwight Eisenhower and the 82nd Airborne backing them up."

What happens in North Carolina next year then is a question of will. Leandro's not about the courts. It's not about the next big idea, but the level of commitment, whether the state follows through on a standard and a dream deferred. If that happens, Leandro will change the lives of thousands – one day millions – of teachers and schoolchildren.

For the families in rural North Carolina who started it all, it's been a long time coming. "We started out wanting school buses and look what it's come to over the years," said Kathleen Leandro.

Robb Leandro now works at Parker Poe himself. He said he went into law because he knew he'd never catch up with his peers in science in math at Duke because they came from different worlds.

Robb's second grader and kindergartner receive noticeably more enhanced educations than he did, not because the system changed, but because he moved away from Raeford. "Now that I live in Raleigh, the elementary school my daughter went to as a kindergartner had piano lessons and they practiced coding and 3D printing," he says. It throws into sharp relief what he and his classmates in Hoke County missed out on, and what they still do.

"I used to say I'm hopeful the brothers and sisters of my classmates would benefit from this, and now I'm at the point where I'm saying I hope their children and the grandchildren benefit from this," Robb said.

Mike Cooper currently holds a job unrelated to education in North Carolina's state government. He began reporting this story before taking that position and no longer reports for Scalawag now that he is a government employee.

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Michael Cooper

Michael is a journalist and attorney from the foothills of North Carolina. He is a co-director of New Leaders Council in the state. He recently served as a communications aide in state government and has contributed to The Week, The New Republic, U.S. News & World Report, and Talk Poverty. He was a reporter for Scalawag during the 2018 cycle.