Monday, December 27, 2004

Tar Heel of the Year--and then some

The N&O's award of 2004 Tar Heel of the Year to Judge Howard Manning is a modest recognition for a man who has spent the past six years forcing the state legislature's feet to the fire on the funding of public education.

In its first Leandro opinion, in 1997, the N.C. Supreme Court left it to the trial court to work out the details of what it meant to provide a constitutionally mandated "sound basic education" to all North Carolina students, and Judge Manning was handed the job. He took it seriously--as you can see by scanning this list of documents pertaining to years of hearings and findings.

Manning's Judgment (.pdf) of April 2002 gave no doubt how serious he was. He noted that a "shell game" was being played in which the blame for a sorry situation was passed from the state to the local districts and back. Both are responsible, he said, but the buck stops in Raleigh.

Intervening plaintiffs, wealthy school districts, complained that to do what Manning was asking would require them to divert resources from academically gifted programs. On their behalf, State Board of Education chairman Phil Kirk argued that Manning's mandate would "drive more of the brighter students away from public schools into private education." To which Manning responded,

It has become clear to the Court that it was the state's "minimalist" vision of what the North Carolina Supreme Court expected a student to obtain that caused the educational and political leadership to fail to appreciate the fact that Leandro's guarantee of a sound basic education applies to all students, including the "best and brightest."

Manning's judgment of April 2002 was almost entirely upheld on appeal this summer. The only part that was rejected was his requirement for pre-kindergarten education. That, the Supreme Court said, could be required only by a legislative decision. On all other points, Manning's opinion was upheld. His "restraint," in fact, was complimented:

[W]e note that the trial court also demonstrated admirable restraint by refusing to dictate how existing problems should be approached and resolved. Recognizing that education concerns were the shared province of the legislative and executive branches, the trial court instead afforded the two branches an unimpeded chance, “initially at least,” . . . to correct constitutional deficiencies revealed at trial.

Oh, one more thing. Incredibly, the state actually argued that a grade of Level II (a C) was enough to meet the "sound basic education" standard. Don't be ridiculous, said Judge Manning.

The State's position that the equal opportunity to receive a sound education has been provided when a child performs at a level of minimal mediocrity (Level II-below grade level) and is barely scraping by to obtain a high school diploma is just plain wrong.

That too was upheld on appeal.

There's too much to say about Leandro, which is why I've refrained from blogging about it till now. You'd be better off reading Jack Boger's article "Education's 'Perfect Storm'? Racial Resegregation, High-Stakes Testing, and School Resource Inequities: The Case of North Carolina," 81 N.C. L. Rev. 1375 (2003), but unfortunately you'll need Lexis or WestLaw access to get it.

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