The North Carolina Supreme Court will hear the Leandro case this week. It's the fourth time the 28-year-old case over equitable school funding will go before the state's highest court.
Saturday public school advocates rallied outside the statehouse in Raleigh to call for state lawmakers to comply with a lower court's order to fund a $6.8 billion dollar plan to improve public schools.
“We must not lose any more time, another generation of students, before we do what is right by them,” said Tamika Walker Kelly, the president of the North Carolina Association of Educators.
Republican legislative leaders Phil Berger and Tim Moore have appealed the lower court's decision to the Supreme Court. Their attorneys argue only the legislature has the constitutional power to decide how to spend tax dollars. They further argue that the trial evidence in the case does not warrant an expensive statewide remedy for a case originally concerning five school districts.
Attorneys representing public school districts argue lawmakers have had ample time to meet the North Carolina constitution's promise of the privilege of education for every child.
Speakers lament the passage of time without a remedy
The rally was organized by Every Child, NC, a statewide coalition of public school advocacy groups, that formed to promote funding for public education through the court-ordered Comprehensive Remedial Plan.
Speakers emphasized how much time has passed since plaintiffs from five low-wealth counties first filed the case in May 1994.
Brittany Gregory, originally of Moore County, held up a picture of herself when she was in elementary school when she took the podium to speak.
“I kind of dubbed myself generation Leandro,” Gregory said. “This is me in 1994 when the case was filed, and I'm standing here today, not just as a student here, but as a graduate, a mom.”
“We've weathered 27 years, and hopefully we're going to get some funding soon,” said Angus Thompson, an original plaintiff in the case.
Thompson is a trial attorney from Robeson County, a former school board member, and the father of one of the original children represented in the case. He said he recently spoke to his daughter, then a 7th grader, now an adult.
“She said, ‘Daddy, I thought that was over?' I said, ‘No, it's not over.'” Thompson said.
Speakers described what they see as ongoing inadequacies in public schools.
Alice Freeman helped organize the rally. She says she moved her youngest son from the public schools of Robeson County to a private school because his public school wasn't meeting his needs. She also has grandchildren in public schools.
Her son Joseph Freeman said his classroom was staffed with long-term substitute teachers after his public school teacher left midyear.
“My seven grandchildren are worth Leandro,” Alice Freeman said. “They're worth me being here. They're worth me fighting for and pushing the issue.”
Shalonda Regan is a community advocate from Robeson County. She pointed to a 2004 opinion by state Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr.
“What the judge decided was that schools needed competent certified teachers. We see it every day, it's not happening. They said that they need competent well-trained principals. Not happening," Regan said. "Resources to support effective instructional programs. We see that it's not happening, right?”
Regan said she felt unprepared when she went to college compared to peers from other counties. Other speakers cited teacher vacancies, deteriorating school buildings, and a lack of adequate NC Pre-K slots as evidence of underfunding.
“When students in Greensboro have schools with no working heat or air, when students in Robeson County have to take classes from a teacher across the county because their school can't afford a teacher to teach in the building, that is a problem,” Tamika Walker Kelly said.
Walker Kelly said lawmakers should use the state's budget surplus, including a $5 billion rainy day fund, to pay for the plan.
“The only barrier to that money are the legislators in this building back there,” Walker Kelly said, pointing to the statehouse. “It is doing more than raining. The schools are drowning.”
The two most recent state budgets increased public school funding, including a new $100 million “low-wealth supplement” fund for 95 of 100 counties. However, the recent budgets do not fully fund the court-ordered plan that was drawn up by an outside consultant WestEd. Judge Michael Robinson, a Republican appointee, found the state budget underfunded the current year of the Leandro plan by about $785 million.
“It is time to release the funds,” said Walker Kelly.
On Wednesday, the North Carolina Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case. Justices are expected to rule later this year.