RALEIGH — The former presiding jurist in the Leandro school funding case says the current struggles facing public schools in North Carolina are more about a breakdown in classroom instruction than a lack of funding.
Former Superior Court Judge Howard Manning made the comments in an exclusive sit-down interview with Carolina Journal at his Raleigh home.
“It’s a failure of classroom instruction. Pure and simple,” said Manning. “The money is not the point. [The public schools] get plenty of money.”
Manning added that he’s “angry” with poorly performing schools that don’t adequately teach young people.
“If this was GM or Ford or IBM or Apple, they would shut down every one of these schools because they’re not producing,” he said.
Manning was the trial judge appointed to handle the Leandro case in 1997. He presided over the case until 2016 when he retired for medical reasons.
The Leandro lawsuit dates to 1994, when five rural school districts sued the state over education funding. The state Supreme Court has ruled twice since then — in 1997 and again in 2004 — that the state has a constitutional obligation to provide “a sound, basic education” to all students.
CJ’s wide-ranging interview covered everything from the history of Manning’s tenure over the case to anecdotal stories of spending largesse by local public school officials to current lackluster reading scores for third graders.
On that last point, Manning decried poor reading proficiency scores as another indicator of a breakdown in classroom instruction. A recent report from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction showed that a majority of the state’s first-, second-, and third-grade students are not proficient in reading.
“Everybody agrees that if you can’t read by the end of third grade, you’re not going to be successful,” Manning said. “Based on all the evidence, there’s no excuse for a child getting to the end of the third grade and not being able to read. If you spend the money in my book, you spend the money where it will do the most good, and that is teaching the children how to read.”
‘He didn’t say a damn word after that’
Manning also shared personal stories of his interaction with officials at school systems during his time presiding over the case.
In one instance, he visited Plymouth High School in Washington County.
“I drove up during my lunch hour, and I noticed the parking spaces,” Manning shared. “The first parking space was reserved for the school secretary. There was a big Cadillac parked there. Next was the principal’s spot. It was a big black Mercedes. That was the principal’s choice. Then, the assistant principal had a black Mercedes.”
At the time, the school system was considering purchasing an $8,000-a-year computer lab program called PLATO that would help rehabilitate high-school students in algebra and other STEM learning topics, Manning said. But local officials said they didn’t have the funds for it.
Meanwhile, the school system’s superintendent was driving a brand new car with an auto-start feature, Manning said.
“I asked him, ‘By the way, where did you get the money to buy this car?’ He said, ‘I’ve got a smart comptroller. She saw a finance offer and found he $24,000, and we got a deal on it.’ I said, ‘PLATO is only $8,000, but you didn’t have money to buy that.’ He didn’t say a damn word after that. I mean, I couldn’t believe he spent $24,000 on a brand new damn car that started itself, and the children in the high school didn’t have PLATO.”
When Manning came back to visit three months later, the parking lot looked very different, he said.
“We got there and in the school secretary’s parking place was an old beat-up Cadillac. When the superintendent came over, he was driving a 15-year-old green school van.”
Manning also focused on the prevalence of out-of-wedlock births in poor, rural counties. He referenced back to holding court in Warren, Vance, Granville, and Franklin counties in the first six months of the year 2000. He never encountered a young male defendant who was a father and who was also married.
“Many had more than one illegitimate child by more than one female,” Manning said. “No high-school diploma. No job experience beyond menial work. Selling drugs or engaging in drug-related criminal activity, and no sound, basic education whatsoever. Marriage is a relationship that appears to be obliterated from their vocabulary or society.”
Their children, meanwhile, will join the public school system “at risk before they ever enter a school building,” Manning said. “And it is not those children’s fault. It is the fault of their at-risk, irresponsible parents, who bring them into a world of poverty with no family structure and little hope for success. Until and unless this vicious cycle is broken by education and better opportunity for this segment of the at-risk population and for other at-risk children who are not passing through the criminal justice system, there will not be an equal educational opportunity for every child in North Carolina.”
The most recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put North Carolina’s out-of-wedlock birth rate at 42%.
CJ’s interview with Manning comes at a pivotal time in the Leandro litigation. The case is once again headed to the N.C. Supreme Court, as plaintiffs, defendants, and others try to reconcile $795 million in the new state budget with a $1.75 billion order from Superior Court Judge David Lee last year.
For more, tune into Carolina Journal’s “Extreme Injustice Season 2: Stolen Time” podcast available on Spotify, iTunes, and right here, at extremeinjustice.com.