The Leandro ‘have to’ list

Superior Court Judge Howard E. Manning Jr. doesn’t look or sound much like the Disney version of Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother. Yet this image came to mind recently after Judge Manning invoked the story of Cinderella in his continuing oversight of the Leandro case.

The Leandro decisions are the most important N.C. Supreme Court rulings in living memory. The court established that every child in North Carolina has a constitutional right to the “opportunity for a sound basic education.” The justices also made it plain that the state has an inescapable constitutional obligation to provide that opportunity to all children throughout our state. No loopholes. No more appeals.

Enter Judge Manning, wielding a gavel rather than a wand. The original Cinderella required her Fairy Godmother’s help to get to the royal ball. Today, North Carolina’s Cinderellas need Judge Manning’s assistance to get a sound basic education.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot more than a wicked stepmother and a couple of conniving stepsisters standing in the way of our children’s “living happily ever after.” Despite the bipartisan rhetoric in support of education, there continues to be real resistance to doing what needs to be done and paying what needs to be paid to fulfill Leandro’s most basic requirement: a good teacher in every classroom and a good principal in every school across our state.

You might think that meeting a rock-solid constitutional mandate would top the state’s “have to” list. Think again. Since the North Carolina Supreme Court issued its final Leandro decision in July, the response from our leaders has been decidedly underwhelming. The Leandro decision was not a hot campaign issue in the races for state-level office — not even in the race for superintendent of public instruction.

But Leandro won’t go away: When the General Assembly reconvened last month, this constitutional mandate landed squarely on its shoulders. And in anticipation of that, Judge Manning spent months last year overseeing the planning process through which the long-delayed promise of Leandro might finally be fulfilled.

The discussions in Judge Manning’s courtroom have focused almost exclusively on North Carolina’s educational system. Placing first-rate teachers in well-run schools throughout the state would be a monumental achievement. It would also be a blessing and a triumph for our schools to be able to meet the needs of all students who are struggling academically. Judge Manning is rightly adamant in insisting that students in all of North Carolina’s schools gain better opportunities on his watch.

As crucial as this school-based focus is, however, it’s important to remember that the state Supreme Court did not limit this constitutional right only to currently enrolled students and did not say that the remedies must occur exclusively within our educational system. Instead, the justices went out of their way to emphasize that all children have the same Leandro right. It doesn’t matter whether a given child is in school or out of school, 17 days or 17 years old, nor whether the child’s parents are dirt poor or filthy rich.

What does matter is that young North Carolinians actually get what they need to succeed. Ironically, the good teachers mandated by the courts would also be the first to confess their own limitations and to advocate for the kinds of opportunities and assistance their students desperately need outside the classroom. From the 9-year-old with chronic, untreated asthma to the ninth grader whose education is being undermined by substance abuse, these missing opportunities are many and varied.

Some children simply need eyeglasses or hearing aids; others need an after-school tutor or a mentor. Still others need ongoing mental-health services. The Leandro remedies must be responsive to individual realities and differences among children.

Judge Manning’s repeated disdain for “one-size-fits-all” solutions shows that he understands this point well. In fact, his willingness to advocate for pre-kindergarten education moved the case in the right direction. The state’s proposed expansion of the More at Four pre-kindergarten program also demonstrates an awareness that vital opportunities for children neither begin nor end at the schoolhouse door. These are welcome first steps toward a much more comprehensive implementation of Leandro.

It would be more than a shame for any child to be excluded or treated as less deserving of their Leandro rights than any other child. Equally, it would be wrong to pit the needs of one group of children against those of another group. Instead, let’s create all the opportunities — both deep within and well beyond the educational system — that will enable all of our children to achieve a sound, basic education.

In the Cinderella story, there was only one pair of magic slippers, one princess and one winner. In the Leandro reality, North Carolina has a chance to produce millions of winners — children who, despite the odds against them, truly will get a chance to make the most of their lives. That’s a storybook ending worth fighting for.

[Jonathan P. Sher is a senior fellow at the N.C. Child Advocacy Institute (www.ncchild.org) and co-director of the Leandro Advocacy Project. The nonprofit, nonpartisan North Carolina Editorial Forum provides the media with the views of state experts on major public concerns in order to stimulate informed discussion.]

(c) 2004 by the North Carolina Editorial Forum

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