State school response rejected

North Carolina’s educators have failed to provide a court-ordered plan that details how the state is going to provide a basic education for all children.

Wake Superior Court Judge Howard Manning delivered that blunt critique in a 12-page letter to the state Attorney General’s Office. He then gave the state 10 more days to come up with a satisfactory document.

Manning focused his comments on a two-inch stack of documents filed by state attorneys July 5. The response, which the judge ordered in April, was intended to show how the state was improving education, especially for children most at risk of failing.

But Manning said the documents "do not show any effort by the state" to make real change and it appears "nothing concrete has been done whatsoever."

He also reminded state officials that they must comply with his order given in a 1997 ruling by the NC Supreme Court. That decision declared that all children have a constitutional right to a "sound, basic education, NC" The high court also defined those basic skills and sent the case back to Manning to work out the details.

After Manning did that in a lengthy court proceeding, the state agreed to abide by his decisions even though it is still appealing the issue of whether every detail of Manning’s order is mandated by the constitution.

In its filing July 5, the state described a list of programs that education officials hope to launch soon. Many of those recommendations were outlined by Gov. Mike Easley’s Education First Task Force in a report released last month.

But Manning said the recommendations, while commendable, would not be enough to meet the court order.

"The task force is merely advisory," Manning wrote in the letter addressed to special Deputy Attorney General Thomas J. Ziko. "In stark contrast, however, the court’s orders in this case are not advisory. It appears clear to the court that the state, including the lawyers in the Attorney General’s Office, has failed to appreciate this distinction and elected to do little, if anything, in order to comply."

A separate filing by Ann Majestic, an attorney representing several local school districts in the court case, was more direct.

"For the most part the state has simply assembled various documents relating to activities it was doing anyway (or that some state official somewhere was thinking about possibly doing) that relate in some way to general ‘efforts to improve educational opportunities’ and submitted them to the court," Majestic wrote in the reply. "The state’s report is not a serious document."

Ziko did not return a phone call seeking comment about the letter, which was delivered late Friday afternoon. State schools Superintendent Mike Ward, who must sign the plan submitted to Manning in 10 days, said he could not respond until he had seen the judge’s comments.

Manning said he will decide what to do next after he reads the state’s response.

In an interview after the letter was delivered, Manning said he does not want to dictate details of how the state should improve its schools, but he said he could decide to "ride herd a lot more tightly" if he did not believe the state was complying with his orders.

In both his comments and his letter to Ziko, the judge said the expansion of the state’s More at Four Program is the type of concrete response he is looking for in response to his rulings. The pre-kindergarten program is designed to help children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds that often hinder their ability to succeed.

Bob Spearman, a lawyer for the school systems that filed the initial legal claim against the state eight years ago, said he was encouraged by Manning’s letter.

"This makes it clear the judge intends to follow through with the court’s orders," he said. "The state isn’t going to get away with simply filing reports."

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