Court tells state to say what it’ll do for lagging students

The education reform movement has generated a greater sense of purpose about helping needy children than ever before, but rarely has it generated a comparable sense of urgency. Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr. doesn’t like that one bit, and he’s holding the state of North Carolina accountable for its inaction.

The judge is not a volunteer meddler. He’s involved because five poor counties sued the state eight years ago for failing to provide the "sound basic education" required by the N.C. Constitution. During the ensuing legal battle, Judge Manning has made it clear he finds delay legally intolerable. He made it even clearer last week with a tart letter to state education officials ordering them to tell him within 10 days the specific improvements they plan for the 6,000 students in poor, rural Hoke County, one of the litigants. His order was emphatic as a kick in the rear.

We doubt that judges would run schools any better than state and local education officials. But in a lawsuit raising a constitutional issue, a judge not only can but must examine the result of educators’ work and determine whether it meets the state Constitution’s requirement. In many N.C. counties, the answer obviously is "no."

This is not to say North Carolina has done nothing. In fact, our state is one of the national leaders in education reform, with such statewide commitments as the ABCs accountability program and an effort to improve state funding. But the judge asks, reasonably, what that does for Hoke County students who are part of the lawsuit. How will it ensure them a "sound basic education?"

Mike Ward, the state superintendent of public instruction, NC, says he’ll urge the State Board of Education to answer the judge’s question. The board should follow his advice. It’s time to show what the state will do when it focuses its best ideas and adequate resources on a school system that’s undeniably in need. The future of Hoke County students is, after all, the state’s concern. The Constitution says so.

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