How the courts and the state legislature can ensure North Carolina’s students get a quality education
This Wednesday, the students of Halifax County will get their day in court.
Superior Court Judge Howard Manning, who has been overseeing the implementation of the Leandro court ruling, has called the state’s education leaders into court to explain how they plan to turn around Halifax County Public Schools (HCPS). Only 39.7% of Halifax kids in grades 3 through 8 passed the end-of-grade math test last school year, and an astonishingly low 25.5% passed the reading test.
In a letter accompanying his Notice of Hearing, Judge Manning called on the State “to exercise direct command and control over Halifax County Public Schools.” But Halifax County is just one of a number of school districts failing to provide all of their students – regardless of background, ethnicity or disability – with an adequate education.
State leaders have had more than a decade to meet the standards of Leandro. It is time for the court to require the State to act aggressively, before another decade’s worth of children is lost.
The Leandro Mandate
In the ruling by the NC Supreme Court known as Leandro v. the State of North Carolina (“Leandro”), the court found that the state constitution requires the State to provide every child with the opportunity to obtain a “sound basic education.” To achieve that standard, the court said every classroom must be staffed by a competent, certified, well-trained teacher; every school must have a well-trained competent principal; and each school must have the recourses necessary to support an effective instructional program.
Judge Manning considers Halifax County Public Schools to be an extreme example of the State’s failure to meet the Leandro mandate. In his Notice of Hearing, Judge Manning said the following:
The bottom line is that Halifax County Public Schools children are suffering from a breakdown in system leadership, school leadership and a breakdown in classroom instruction by and large from elementary school through high school.
The Court cannot ignore this any longer. The State is responsible for ensuring that these schools are Leandro compliant….
Accordingly, it is time for the State to exert itself and exercise command and control over the Halifax County Public Schools beginning in the school year 2009-2010, nothing more and nothing less.”
The Court Can Do More
In a statement issued last week, Governor Bev Perdue said, "Dr. Harrison, Superintendent Atkinson and I will act aggressively in Halifax County and all of North Carolina to make sure our schools have the support, direction and accountability that give our kids a chance to succeed."
The statement said the intervention plan, which will be presented to Judge Manning on Wednesday, “will provide intensive support and oversight to coach principals in effective instructional and school leadership, to provide tools to help central office personnel better guide the school district, and ensure that teachers get the necessary support and resources needed to improve student learning.”
But North Carolina’s families have seen plans and heard promises before, and yet tens of thousands of children are still denied their right to a quality education.
The court has the power to craft whatever relief is necessary to address the constitutional crisis in HCPS. At the very least, the court can require the State to devise, fund and implement a comprehensive and detailed plan to fulfill the components of a Leandro-compliant education. If the remedy now being offered up by state leaders is not adequate to the task, then Judge Manning has the authority to order the State to do more.
There is strong evidence that HCPS suffers from a devastating shortage of effective teachers. During the 2007-08 school year, 24% of Halifax County’s middle school teachers and 29% of its high school teachers did not have a teacher’s license – compared to the statewide average of 9% of middle school teachers and 11% of high school teachers. Certainly, the court should require that any proposal from state and Halifax County education officials include a detailed and comprehensive plan to dramatically increase the number of licensed teachers in HCPS classrooms.
A Multi-Faceted Approach
But a truly comprehensive plan will involve more than just changes and new resources for the education system. The people of Halifax County know the challenges. Last week, staff from the Justice Center’s Education & Law Project met with Halifax County parents, who have many ideas about the investments their communities need in addition to better teachers and administrators and more resources. Engaging parents and community leaders in this educational reformation process will be essential if it is to succeed.
For example, the court and the state legislature need to determine what additional resources and actions are needed to attract licensed teachers to the Halifax County Public Schools. At the very least, there must be jobs available for teachers’ spouses. And then there are all the other human resources children, particularly those with disabilities or in need of remediation, need in order to become successful students – special education teachers, reading specialists, speech therapists, occupational therapists. Attracting people with these skills to low-income rural counties like Halifax will take significant state investment.
As state legislators move through the budget process, there are two things they must keep in mind. First, they have a constitutional responsibility to ensure that districts like HCPS are successful in educating their students. And second, that providing schools with the resources they need includes providing communities with the resources they need to thrive.