Cornerstone Commentaries: Leandro v. State of NC, a landmark NC education case

Nov 18th, 2010
by Robb Leandro


Click here to watch a follow-up interview with Leandro.

Plaintiffs in this case were students and their parents or guardians from the relatively poor school systems in Cumberland, Halifax, Hoke, Robeson, and Vance Counties and the boards of education for those counties. Plaintiff-intervenors were students and their parents or guardians from the relatively large and wealthy school systems of the City of Asheville and of Buncombe, Wake, Forsyth, Mecklenburg, and Durham Counties and the boards of education for those systems. Both plaintiffs and plaintiff-intervenors alleged in that they have a right to adequate educational opportunities which is being denied them by defendants under the school funding system. Plaintiff-parties also alleged that the North Carolina Constitution not only creates a fundamental right to an education, but it also guarantees that every child, no matter where he or she resides, is entitled to equal educational opportunities.

The N.C. Supreme Court held that the right to a qualitatively adequate education arises under the North Carolina Constitution. The N.C. Constitution provides at art. I, § 15:  "The people have a right to the privilege of education, and it is the duty of the State to guard and maintain that right." It also provides at art. IX, § 2(1): The General Assembly shall provide by taxation and otherwise for a general and uniform system of free public schools, which shall be maintained at least nine months in every year, and wherein equal opportunities shall be provided for all students.

The Court concluded that Article I, Section 15 and Article IX, Section 2 combine to guarantee every child of this state an opportunity to receive a sound basic education in our public schools. They defined, for purposes of the Constitution, a "sound basic education" as one that will provide the student with at least: (1) sufficient ability to read, write, and speak the English language and a sufficient knowledge of fundamental mathematics and physical science to enable the student to function in a complex and rapidly changing society; (2) sufficient fundamental knowledge of geography, history, and basic economic and political systems to enable the student to make informed choices with regard to issues that affect the student personally or affect the student's community, state, and nation; (3) sufficient academic and vocational skills to enable the student to successfully engage in post-secondary education or vocational training; and (4) sufficient academic and vocational skills to enable the student to compete on an equal basis with others in further formal education or gainful employment in contemporary society.

While they concluded that the North Carolina Constitution requires that access to a sound basic education be provided equally in every school district, they held that the equal opportunities clause of Article IX, Section 2(1) does not require substantially equal funding or educational advantages in all school districts. They concluded that because the North Carolina Constitution expressly states that units of local governments with financial responsibility for public education may provide additional funding to supplement the educational programs provided by the state, there can be nothing unconstitutional about their doing so or in any inequality of opportunity occurring as a result. However, a funding system that distributed state funds to the districts in an arbitrary and capricious manner unrelated to such educational objectives simply would not be a valid exercise of that constitutional authority and could result in a denial of equal protection or due process.