A ruling for N.C. education

Gene R. Nichol is dean and Burton Craige professor of law at the UNC School of Law Charlotte.

Judge Howard Manning Jr.’s decision in the Hoke County public school case has proven to be something of a legal Rorshach test. Contesting parties, activists, public officials and commentators have discovered widely divergent messages and directives in its pages. Unsurprisingly, what one sees in Manning’s ruling depends a lot on what one wants to see. A 100-plus page discourse can apparently provide something for everyone.

The plaintiffs note victory in the finding that the state is failing to meet its constitutional obligation to poor, "at risk" kids. Local school districts take heart in the heightened responsibilities outlined for state government. Officials in Raleigh are apparently relieved that no direct order appeared demanding that they pay a larger share of the bill. All the protagonists hope Manning’s vision for public education in North Carolina can be made to match their own.

Actually, though, Judge Manning is not a terribly ambiguous fellow. And the Hoke County ruling is a lot like its author. It turns neither to subtlety nor equivocation. Its mandates are pointed, and clear. So unless it is reversed, things are going to change.

First, Manning has decreed, as strongly as language will allow, that high percentages of "at risk children in North Carolina [are] not receiving a sound, basic education" — in violation of the state constitution. As a result, decidedly greater "attention" and "resources" must be directed their way. Admittedly, this doesn’t necessarily require an expanded education budget. But unless the school districts eliminate a whole lot of what they’re doing now, the money has to come from someplace. No one who knows public education thinks we’re going to suddenly start shortchanging those at the top.

Second, Manning closed the door on buck passing. The obligation to provide a "sound, basic education," he wrote, is not "a shell game" — to be shifted from school districts to the state and back again, depending on who is (or is not) before the court. The state of North Carolina has the "ultimate responsibility to ensure that the constitutional guarantee is met."

Manning wasn’t performing voodoo here. That’s exactly what our state charter says. And despite Bill Clinton, words do mean something. So whether or not the case is appealed, this conclusion won’t change. For two decades state politicians have campaigned as if they were running for the school board. Now they’ll get to show what they can do.

Third, the Hoke County ruling, incorporating heavy doses of irony, uses explicit state education policies to force North Carolina to do something it apparently doesn’t want to do. Our governors, legislators and administrators, with mantra-like precision, have proclaimed an unyielding commitment to tougher standards in the public schools. Testing regimes have been instituted to make sure that school districts raise their sights. And if local educators don’t pass muster, there is hell to pay. Oversight from above is thought essential to assure excellence.

But in the Hoke County case, according to Manning, North Carolina "fought tooth and nail" to avoid the rigors of bolstered constitutional educational accountability. Manning was forced to flatly discard the state’s attempt to lower "the minimum level of academic performance [demanded] under Leandro." This unexpected project, he thought, was merely an effort by high officials to re-describe failure as success.

And Manning wasn’t buying it. A comparison of state-mandated educational goals and the results of newly minted testing schemes constituted an "irrefutable admission" by the state of North Carolina that there "are thousands of [at risk] students…who are not being provided with the minimum resources necessary for them to receive a sound basic education."

One doubts that the state anticipated its testing prowess could be used so effectively to make the claim that it’s not doing its job. Shakespeare would say we were hoist on our own petard. The high-stakes testing movement hasn’t typically carried water for poor black and Latino school kids. It did, however, in the Hoke County case. Something good might come from end-of-grade tests after all.

Manning’s logic is simple and direct. The studies reveal that large numbers of at risk students, whether they reside in high or low wealth districts, are not being provided the resources they need to succeed. It is clearly possible to provide those resources. And if they are provided, substantially higher percentages of disadvantaged students will prosper. It is fine, even marvelous, to develop strong sports teams, uplifting advanced placement programs, stellar science labs and impressive administrative facilities. But they aren’t demanded by the North Carolina constitution. A sound, basic education for every child is. First things, as they say, first.

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