Judge Manning’s dramatic final ruling in the Leandro case mandates that the State of NC and its public school systems give unprecedented priority and resources to children and youth at risk. He chastises North Carolina’s educational and political leaders for their failure to ensure that all young North Carolinians – especially at risk children and youth – actually benefit from their Leandro-established constitutional right to a sound, basic education.
Empowered by the NC Supreme Court, Judge Manning has served notice that the State of North Carolina can, and will, be held accountable by the courts. Equally important, Judge Manning will measure the State’s performance not by dollars spent, courses offered or programs implemented – but rather by the extent to which every young North Carolinian is benefiting from this constitutional right.
There will be no "A"s for effort. The NC Supreme Court’s constitutional standard for a sound, basic education (as set forth in their 1997 Leandro decision and as amplified now by Judge Manning) insists upon good results, not just good intentions. The Court’s common sense standard requires educational outcomes that are far more meaningful than student scores on a single, "high stakes" standardized test.
Given Leandro’s origins as an education lawsuit, it was sensible for Judge Manning to focus on the responsibilities of the State and its local school systems. His ruling simply accepts the "at riskness" of students as a fact of life. All his prescribed remedies deal with the consequences for educators and policymakers of having at risk children and youth in the education system. No remedies addressing the causes of their "at riskness" are ordered.
The court system, NC can draw its own jurisdictional boundaries. Society cannot. Children and youth are not harmed or made vulnerable primarily by schools, nor can the education system bear sole responsibility for overcoming the harm or eliminating the vulnerability – i.e., the "at riskness" – of North Carolina’s two million children and youth. Children and youth bring their whole lives to the classroom, not just the test-taking part of their brains.
Far too many children arrive at school abused or neglected. Some teens show up for classes drunk, drugged or otherwise "wasted". Other school-aged children don’t come to school at all, for reasons ranging from chronic physical and mental illnesses to suspension, expulsion or incarceration. All of them are deeply at risk. Yet, all of them retain their constitutional right to a sound basic education. None of them can be ignored or thrown away if the State is to meet its constitutional obligations.
Implementing Judge Manning’s ruling fully and faithfully is essential. NC education system has a unique, central and irreplaceable role in improving the lives and life prospects of its at risk students. Nonetheless, the school-based changes envisioned by the Leandro decision and spelled out in Judge Manning’s final ruling are not sufficient by themselves. They need to be supported and supplemented by a broader strategy to reduce the harm being done to children. NC needs to diminish the "at riskness" of children and youth beyond the classroom as well as within it. After all, these two dimensions of a child’s life are inextricably intertwined.
Reducing their vulnerability to bad outcomes begins with understanding why our children and youth are at risk in the first place. That makes a new national report by KIDS COUNT (Annie E. Casey Foundation) and the Population Reference Bureau so timely and useful. Children At Risk: State Trends 1990-2000 provides a state-by-state comparison of ten important indicators of child well-being over time. These range from children living in poverty to school dropout rates. The indicators are not all-inclusive. Crucial health, maltreatment and substance abuse indicators are absent from this report because the data are not available or not comparable nationwide.
There is no comfort for North Carolinians in these national comparisons. On most indicators, our state remains well below the national average and too often is among the bottom five states. Most telling is the report’s composite Family Risk Index.
It reveals that the number of children growing up in very "high risk" families actually increased during the 1990s by 82,000 (from 189,000 in 1990 to 271,000 in 2000). Again, this figure only deals with socio-economically vulnerable families. The total number of NC’s at risk students rises dramatically when other causes of "at riskness" – from abuse or neglect to serious mental and physical illnesses – are taken into account, too.
The Family Risk Index reveals that the gap between North Carolina’s performance and that of the nation as a whole has widened by 23% over the past decade. From 1990 to 2000, there was an 8% decrease in the total number of American children in high risk families, while there was a 15% increase in North Carolina during the same period. It’s no surprise that our state ranked 47th in the country on this measure of child well-being. But, it remains a disgrace.
Some would argue that North Carolina cannot be expected to shed its historical disadvantages as a poor Southern state in one or two generations. They would insist that the only fair measure is a measure of progress – that is, how quickly is North Carolina improving on these key measures of child well-being? It’s a good question. However, the answer is frightening.
The damning data are hidden deep in Appendix 3 of this national KIDS COUNT/PRB report. They reveal that our state also ranked 47th in the nation in terms of progress in reducing the number of children living in high risk families. By contrast, every other Southern states ranked far better on the progress measure than NC. In fact, Louisiana was 13th in the nation, while Mississippi ranked 14th. No Southern state — other than North Carolina – had a higher percentage of children/youth in high risk families in 2000 than in 1990.
I offer three conclusions based on a reading of Children At Risk: State Trends 1990-2000, the NC Supreme Court’s 1997 Leandro decision and Judge Manning’s final 2002 Leandro ruling:
First, Judge Manning couldn’t have been more right when he ordered North Carolina’s educational and political leaders to do everything possible to ensure that at risk students really will benefit from their constitutional right to a sound, basic education.
Second, as far-reaching as the Leandro decision is within NC’s education world, it never was intended to remedy the myriad of health, economic, child maltreatment and substance abuse problems that create at risk children and youth. Such remedies are just as crucial, but did not fit into the established boundaries of Judge Manning’s rulings.
Third, the quest to improve child well-being – and thereby, reduce "at riskness" – may seem quixotic or impossibly expensive. It is not. If Mississippi can reduce its percentage of children in high risk families by 13% in a decade, then there’s no excuse for North Carolina’s 15% increase during the same years.
Funding education has been the main way in which our state leaders have demonstrated their commitment to children. It has proven to be a terrific first step. Establishing the constitutional right of all NC children and youth, including those at risk or in trouble for whatever reasons — to at least a sound, basic education is a wonderful second step.
What remains is the third step of investing more fully and consistently in the well-being of young North Carolinians. Inadequate investment here has resulted in the ever-swelling number of students who are unusually hard and unusually expensive to educate properly. The State goal of becoming "First in America in Education" will be unattainable as long as our state stays stuck near the bottom on national indicators of child well-being. Ranking 1st in education while ranking 47th in children at risk always will remain an impossible combination.
Even in a time of huge budget shortfalls, safeguarding North Carolina’s future requires a diversified public investment portfolio – one that meets the educational needs of at risk students and also prevents/reduces the "at riskness" of all our children. Helping those who cannot help themselves — a perfect description of harmed youth and vulnerable children — is a "have to" item for any state government. Accomplishing this "have to" work is the true "high stakes" test we desperately need our state leaders to pass with flying colors.