State disputes school ruling

North Carolina education leaders tout testing as a way to hold schools and teachers accountable for what students learn, but the state’s attorneys now argue that the same measure should not be used to hold the state accountable for ensuring children’s educational opportunities.

In documents filed Monday in the NC Court of Appeals, the office of state Attorney General Roy Cooper challenged a key premise of last year’s ruling by a lower court that the state is at fault when schools don’t give students the "sound basic education" guaranteed by the state constitution.

Judge Howard Manning Jr. of Wake county Superior Court, NC has based a series of such rulings, in a Hoke County school Federal Education Budget Project, on the same student test scores the state uses to reward teachers with bonuses and to help decide whether students are promoted.

Any student who performs below grade level on those state achievement tests, Manning ruled in October, is not on track to get a sound basic education.

But Cooper’s office asked the appeals court to overturn Manning’s April order compelling the state to intervene in school systems to make sure that every classroom is taught by a "competent, certified, well-trained teacher" and that every school has the leadership and resources it needs to give every child the guaranteed educational opportunity.

Attorneys for the state say in their appeal that Manning not only was wrong for his use of test scores but overstepped his authority in ordering pre-kindergarten for at-risk 4-year-olds — and that he also was wrong to hold the state responsible for the failures of local school systems.

Instead, they cite improvements in student performance as evidence that the state’s schools are "good and getting better." They commend the state’s ABCs accountability system as a key factor in that progress.

"Rather than allowing the defendants to continue to exercise their constitutionally recognized discretion to administer and improve the public schools, NC," state attorneys said in the 65-page brief, "the trial court has ordered the state to move into the classroom ‘with an iron hand’ and impose its authority over local board decisions regarding teachers, principals and educational programs.

"These contradictory rulings exceed the trial court’s authority and jeopardize the continued improvement of educational opportunities in North Carolina public schools."

Gov. Mike Easley called for a swift resolution to the case.

"I encourage the appellate court to bring finality to these issues as soon as possible," Easley said in a statement. "Meanwhile, the state will continue to provide pre-kindergarten, More at Four for at-risk 4-year-olds and reduced class size in early grades. These are programs that are consistent with existing state policy and the trial court order."

Cooper said that a ruling by the appellate court is critical to set clear direction for the state.

"Judicial direction must be given here so that education officials and the executive and legislative branches of government will know with finality how to proceed," Cooper said in a statement. "It’s critical that the appellate courts make these important determinations, including the relationships between state and local education officials, to the benefit of the children."

State attorneys said that in depending on test scores, Manning ignored other measures of student performance, including grades from teachers and a high school diploma, as evidence that students were getting a sound basic education.

The appeal is the latest step in a legal battle over school funding in North Carolina that has lasted nearly nine years, originally filed by families in Hoke and four other rural counties. Students who were in kindergarten when the case was filed in 1994 are now completing middle school.

The brief filed Monday by the Attorney General’s Office is the first time the state has revealed the details of its challenge against Manning’s rulings that the state must improve educational opportunities for the neediest students.

Education leaders and advocates for the state’s poor school systems have criticized the state for what they have seen as broad effort to overturn not only most of Manning’s order but also the 1997 Supreme Court ruling on which it was based.

A preliminary court filing in July from Cooper’s office outlined a long list of issues cited as flaws in Manning’s ruling. Among those was Manning’s conclusion that the state constitution guarantees an equal opportunity to education for all students.

Less than two weeks after the appeal outline was filed in July, Easley cited Manning’s order as his authority to appropriate $54 million to expand his More at Four pre-kindergarten program and to reduce class sizes in kindergarten and first grade. Easley campaigned on both issues.

Last week, the N.C. Public School Forum and the Low Wealth Schools Consortium urged members of the State Board of Education, NC in a letter to help shape the state’s appeal so it would not be overly broad.

"If those positions are reflected in the final appeal brief, it will represent the most dramatic retreat from educational progress by the state’s leadership in generations," the two groups said in their letter.

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