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Reflecting on the Leandro case: So important. So confusing. And so very, very lengthy.

Justice Anita Earls (right) questions lawyer Matthew Tilley during oral arguments in the Leandro case Thursday.
NC Supreme Court YouTube channel
Justice Anita Earls (right) questions lawyer Matthew Tilley during oral arguments in the Leandro case Thursday.

This article originally appeared in WFAE reporter Ann Doss Helms' weekly education newsletter. To get the latest school news in your inbox first, sign up for our email newsletters here.

Last week I covered a North Carolina Supreme Court hearing that one commentator predicted would deal the state’s education system “a massive, devastating and world-altering blow.”

Yet I’d bet that even some of you reading this education newsletter aren’t sure what it’s all about. Some of you probably weren’t even born when it started.

We’re talking about the Leandro case, filed 30 years ago and still working its way through the courts. The plaintiffs, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, sued the state for more money to fulfill the state constitution’s guarantee of a sound basic education.

“World-altering” is a bit hyperbolic, but this really is a huge deal for North Carolina’s education system. The challenge is, have you ever listened to a recording that’s slowed down so much it sounds like a bunch of moans? That’s what following this case has been like. It moves so … very … slowly … that it’s hard to keep track of the narrative (which is also genuinely confusing).

Before the hearing, I participated in two talk shows about the Leandro case: Check out the Charlotte Talks episode here and WUNC’s Due South episode here.

To prepare, I searched The Charlotte Observer’s archives and discovered that my first byline on the matter was in July 2004, when a colleague and I reported on the state Supreme Court’s second Leandro decision. “The ruling ends a 10-year court battle, according to state officials and education experts, and will likely force lawmakers to find millions they have been reluctant to spend on struggling school districts,” we wrote.

So, yeah … take my forecasts with a whole shaker of salt. Twenty years later, here we are, still slogging along. Last week’s hearing was the fifth time this case has gone to the state Supreme Court.

‘Academic genocide’ in CMS

In fact, soon after my colleague and I declared the case over, Superior Court Judge Howard Manning turned his spotlight — or perhaps his laser blaster — on CMS. Manning set out to determine whether extremely low test scores in several high-poverty high schools were caused by inadequate funding or poor management.

If you’re a longtime resident, you might recall the drama that ensued. Manning repeatedly summoned CMS officials to Raleigh to explain themselves. In a series of memos, rulings and public appearances, Manning accused CMS of committing “academic genocide” against Black and low-income students, threatened to close 12 high schools and told principals at those high schools that if they couldn’t do better, they should resign.

CMS launched a series of efforts to turn around high-poverty high schools. Meanwhile, renowned civil rights lawyer Julius Chambers and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg NAACP joined the suit asking Manning to force changes in CMS student assignment and otherwise remedy the inequities. At this point, CMS became both a plaintiff and a defendant in Leandro.

You can’t make this stuff up. But in the end, the whole thing just faded. Manning never closed schools, and CMS didn’t turn them all around. But amid constantly changing accountability measures, the “academic genocide” high schools saw scores improve … and high schools around the state saw their scores slip.

By 2007, the Leandro spotlight shifted away from Charlotte.

Fast forward to 2024

I don’t have room to summarize the next 17 years of Leandro here. Ann McColl, a lawyer who was one of the guests on our Charlotte Talks segment, offers a good synopsis in EdNC here.

I’ll just say that two years of court-ordered study yielded this 300-page report in 2019, detailing an array of programs that could help North Carolina meet its constitutional obligation. In 2021, with Manning now retired, a new judge ordered the state to transfer $1.7 billion to local school systems. State legislators appealed, but the North Carolina Supreme Court upheld that order shortly before the 2022 election (because lawmakers had included some of the money in the state budget, the contested amount dropped to $678 million).

Once again, it looked like the Leandro case might be wrapping up. But Republicans took the majority on the state Supreme Court in November 2022, and once they were sworn in they put that judgment on hold and took the matter up again. You can read my story on last week’s hearing here, find a longer report from EdNC here or watch the hearing here. WUNC’s Liz Schlemmer also did a nice overview of what’s at stake.

Given the 5-2 Republican majority on the current court — one of them is the son of Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger, who’s contesting the order to provide more money — most folks are expecting the court to reverse its 2022 decision. The court hasn’t said when it will issue its ruling.

Will that be the end of Leandro? Given my belly-flop on prognosticating 20 years ago, I should probably stay mum. But my guess? There's plenty more Leandro in our future.

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.