Judge gets report on state education plan

Governor Mike Easley scarcely mentioned Judge Howard Manning Jr. when he convened a special task force of education and business leaders last year to devise a blueprint for "superior and competitive" schools.

Yet he called for the panel the same day he and other state leaders appealed Manning’s order that North Carolina provide its neediest students with the opportunity for a "sound basic education" guaranteed by the state constitution.

And there was no reference to Manning in the recommendations issued last week by Easley’s Education First task force to reform the schools. But the recommendations had Manning written all over them.

On Friday, lawyers for the state included the task force proposals in a 2-inch-thick report to Manning on the state’s progress on complying with his order, the latest chapter in the long-running Leandro school funding dispute.

The First task force calls for the state to spend $63 million more a year for struggling students, to use a heavier hand with failing schools and to take stronger steps to improve the quality of teachers and principals.

Manning’s order in early April blamed the state for constitutional deficiencies in the schools. The report filed Friday was the first of the 90-day updates the Wake Superior Court judge ordered to check the state’s progress in correcting those deficiencies.

State leaders are appealing Manning’s ruling, although they have promised to comply with it while the appeal is being decided.

Friday’s update from Attorney General Roy Cooper’s office was a collection of previously issued reports and documents generated for various public and government purposes. A two-page cover letter explained that the material documented the state’s efforts to improve its schools.

But it was the report from Easley’s task force, created by the governor in reaction to Manning’s order, that outlined the newest steps the state might take to correct shortcomings identified by the judge. Still, the recommendations have not been endorsed yet by Easley or the State Board of Education.

Gerry Hancock, a lobbyist for the state’s poorest school systems, said before the report was filed Friday that he would want to see specific steps the state is taking, not simply a set of proposals.

"Manning is asking for what the state’s plans are," Hancock said, "not what good ideas it has.

"Manning has said the state is failing thousands of at-risk students," Hancock said. "I assume Manning expects a plan to address the constitutional deficiencies that he has identified. I don’t think he’s looking for a list of good ideas that we might adopt someday."

Bob Spearman, a lawyer for the school systems that filed the initial legal claim against the state eight years ago, said he wasn’t sure how the state’s report responds to Manning’s directive.

"It does appear mostly to be documents created for one purpose or another, but not a narrative for the court," Spearman said. "They are proposals by one entity or another. But exactly how all this bears upon the litigation, we’ll have to take a more careful look at it."

The state’s report to Manning included a memorandum that emphasized the governor’s commitment to reducing class sizes in primary grades and expanding his More at Four pre-kindergarten program for at-risk 4-year-olds.

Although the Senate did not include in its budget plan, NC a $28 million expansion of More at Four or $26.2 million for class-size reductions that Easley is seeking, the governor is continuing to push for that funding in the House, according to a memo from Franklin Freeman, Easley’s assistant for governmental affairs.

Freeman’s memo said Easley wanted Manning to take particular note of three task force recommendations: rigorous accountability standards for low-performing schools, a sharper focus on reading and the development of stronger principals.

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