The Justice Center’s Education & Law Project’s work began in 1992 as part of the North Carolina Legal Resource Center to improve the state’s public education system and ensure that all students – regardless of the color of their skin, disability, national origin, or socio-economic class – have equal and fair access to high-quality education.
As part of its efforts to advocate for expanded opportunities and educational outcomes for historically underserved communities, the Education & Law Project has:
- Led successful efforts to prevent passage of school discipline laws that would have resulted in more students being excluded from public schools.
- Helped pass legislation requiring special services for at-risk students in public schools and improved legislation that would have held back large numbers of students due to a single test score.
- Led successful efforts to appropriate new funds for local schools so that they are able to offer education programs for non-English speaking students.
- Secured passage of a state law that put an end to the “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies that disproportionately excluded many minority students from the opportunity to get an education.
- Fought harmful resegregation through Office of Civil Rights complaints with the Department of Education after the loss of Wake County’s nationally-recognized diversity policy for school assignment.
- Provided legal assistance to families that encounter barriers to accessing public schools, including difficulty in registering students, accessing educational supports tailored to individual students, overcoming language barriers, discriminatory admissions processes, and discriminatory application of school discipline rules.
Today, the Education & Law Project engages in efforts to improve and reform public education through tireless policy advocacy at the General Assembly, community outreach, communications and media, and litigation, as well as:
- Continuing to lobby for expanded early learning opportunities at the state level and the creation of innovative early childhood programs in local communities that serve at-risk or underserved students with low incomes.
- Lobbying against unlimited charter school expansion and unfair school funding formulas that would divert millions of dollars of revenue from local public school districts at a time when North Carolina’s schools are among the lowest-funded in the nation.
- Opposing virtual charter schools and working to hold existing schools accountable given their use of public funds, lack of oversight, and unprecedented poor results for students.
- Successfully fighting off changes to integrated math courses of study that would have disrupted teaching and learning by requiring schools to offer two distinct courses of study for math and subjecting students to outdated learning models in the process.
- Fighting for improved accountability for the Opportunity Scholarship voucher program, which diverts public funding to private schools despite the lack of any meaningful financial oversight or information on how well the program is educating North Carolina’s students.
- Supporting increased spending in K-12 public schools to keep up with enrollment growth, and pushing for increased funding for pre-kindergarten programs, classroom materials, competitive pay for educators, student support staff, and student health initiatives.
Leandro and the 2012 Court of Appeals Decision on NC Pre-K
In 1994, in Leandro v. State, boards of education in low-wealth school districts and individuals in those districts filed an action against the State, claiming a violation of the state constitutional right to equal educational opportunity. In 1997, the N.C. Supreme Court unanimously held that every child in the state has a constitutional right to the opportunity to obtain a sound basic education.
In 2004, as part of the ongoing Leandro litigation, the N.C. Supreme Court held that at-risk prospective enrollees in the state’s public schools had been denied their constitutional right to the opportunity to obtain a sound basic education. However, the Court held, at that juncture of the case, mandating pre-kindergarten for all at-risk prospective enrollees was premature and the Court deferred to the legislative and executive branches to devise a remedy. In response, the Legislature and the State Board of Education expanded pre-kindergarten services throughout the State.
Despite abundant evidence that this remedy has proven to be effective, in 2011 the State Legislature adopted a Budget Bill (HB200) that capped the number of at-risk children served in the N.C. Pre-Kindergarten program (NCPK) at 20%, required a co-payment for children enrolled in NCPK and decreased the overall funding for NCPK.
Judge Manning’s 2011 Decision
The 2011 Budget Bill was challenged in court under the ongoing Leandro litigation. Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning ruled that the state:
- Must provide NCPK to any eligible at-risk four-year-old who applies;
- Shall not enforce the 20% cap in the 2011 Budget Bill or any other artificial barrier to deny eligible at-risk four-year-olds from enrolling in NCPK.
The State Legislature appealed Judge Manning’s decision to the State Court of Appeals.
State Court of Appeals’ 2012 Decision
On August 21, 2012, the N.C. Court of Appeals upheld Judge Manning’s order mandating the State to provide NCPK to any eligible at-risk four-year-old who applies.