Landmark NC education decision marks 25 years

North State Journal talks to plaintiff Robb Leandro and former Justice Robert F. Orr

Photo by NSJ staff

RALEIGH – For over two decades the landmark state Supreme Court case known as Leandro v. State, and just a few years later its counterpart Leandro II (or Hoke County v. State), have been long running themes in North Carolina’s education system. The litigation was back in the news just last week when the state filed its fiscal year 2021 action plan.

The case originated in 1994 when families from five low-wealth school districts — Hoke, Halifax, Robeson, Vance and Cumberland — took the state to court claiming North Carolina was not providing their kids with the same educational opportunities as students in higher-income districts. The State Supreme Court ultimately said our children have a fundamental right to the “opportunity to receive a sound basic education” and that North Carolina had not lived up to that constitutional requirement. The tangible results of Leandro were soon visible: initially, low-wealth school districts received about $100 million more funding as a result of the ruling.

However, no matter which political party has been in power over the last 23 years, Leandro has been revisited numerous times. In 2017, both sides agreed that an independent consultant, WestEd, would be tasked with recommending how the state could better meet the educational mandates as laid out in Leandro. In January of this year both parties came to an agreement as to the facts, the findings, and the recommendations of the WestEd report, and established a plan with concrete steps the state will take to meet its short-term and longer-term goals based on WestEd’s report.

Two of the central figures in the original case, lead plaintiff Robb Leandro, and the former Supreme Court Justice who wrote the second opinion in Hoke County (Leandro II), Justice Robert F. Orr, both live and practice law in Raleigh. In recent conversations, Justice Orr reflected on the importance of the Leandro case and its long-lasting impact on state education and Robb Leandro discussed with NSJ how the case has stayed with him his whole adult life and how its shaped his own professional development.

“To my knowledge, this is the longest running piece of litigation in the history of the state. The case is truly remarkable,” Orr said. “In fact, I taught a constitutional law course at UNC Chapel Hill, and we spent at least two or three classes per semester just discussing the Leandro decision.”

Orr also said that with roughly one third of a school district’s funding coming from the county level, it’s no wonder some of the lower income counties are still suffering and noted the funding discrepancies had likely been exacerbated by budgetary shortfalls due to COVID-19.

The young plaintiff Leandro was only in the 8th grade when his family got involved with the case. His family was from Raeford, a small town outside of Fayetteville where the per capita income in 2018 was around $19,000 and the median household income was around $33,000. Raeford is also where some of George Floyd’s family members currently live and was where they had his second memorial service earlier this month.

Orr says his lasting impressions of meeting and working the young plaintiff Leandro was that he was a truly remarkable young man. “The irony of the case was that it was centered on low-income kids who were at a disadvantage when it came to receiving solid educations. Yet here you have this incredibly bright lead plaintiff from Hoke County who goes on to win a Morehead Scholarship, taking him to Duke University and later Vanderbilt Law School. He was the furthest thing away from an underachieving student and did it all on his own merit.”

Since then, Leandro has gone on to become an attorney, specializing in health care at Raleigh’s Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein, which happens to be the same firm that represented him over 20 years ago. His practice focuses on helping health care providers navigate regulatory issues. Here are some excerpts from a recent interview.

NSJ: What was your relationship to the Leandro v. State case for readers who may not know?

RL: My mother and I are Leandro.  Technically because I was minor the lawsuit had to be filed by one of my parents so it was filed in my mother’s name as my guardian.  So I think it’s Kathy Leandro on behalf of her minor son Robb Leandro or something like that.

NSJ: What was your experience like? Were you just the “face of the case” or were you much more involved in the day to day court hearings? 

RL: I was mainly the face of the case.  Attorneys typically don’t ask 15-year-old what they think about their legal strategy, but seriously, the attorneys and the school districts have done all the hard work and any good that has come from the case is a credit to their determination.   I cannot imagine the hundreds and thousands of hours that people have put into this case over the years.   I  have always agreed to do as many interviews or speak at as many conferences or dinners as I’m asked because I think it is important to tell my family’s story and represent the folks of my hometown Raeford because people need to know there are large parts of this state that need more attention from our leaders and need someone speaking out for them.

NSJ: How long did they go on? What was the duration of your family’s involvement? 

RL: We got involved before the case was filed – I think I was in 8th grade, maybe 1993 and have stayed involved ever since, although technically at some point I was dropped from the case because I was no longer a student.

NSJ: How did the case impact the town of Raeford and Hoke County where you grew up? 

RL: TBD.  For some time, there seemed to be some pretty positive momentum and I think the low wealth schools did get some attention and we have benefited from having some good school leadership and teachers.  But if you asked me if students in Hoke County have the same educational opportunities as those in Orange County or Wake have I think the answer is pretty much a resounding no.  If you ask me if they are inherently as smart as the kids from Orange County and Wake County the answer is yes.  So I think it’s pretty important that we make sure there is an equality of opportunity to those kids.

NSJ: You are a lawyer at Parker Poe now. Did your experience with the Leandro case influence your decision to go into law?

RL: Yes, Parker Poe represented the Leandro plaintiffs and still represent the low wealth school districts in the case.  For me I may or may not have gone to law school if not for the Leandro case, I’ve always been interested in the law, but certainly getting to know people like Bob Spearman, who is legendary in his own right and was the lead attorney from Parker Poe sealed the deal for me.  Seeing that you can practice law at the highest level and still be devoted to doing good and helping your state advance made me realize that law was the type of profession I wanted to be associated with (barring the lawyer jokes of course).

NSJ: Does your profession influence how you feel about the education system? 

RL: I’m not a criminal attorney but I’ve been in enough court rooms to know that our criminal justice system would be a lot less busy if the state was meeting its constitutional mandate to provide all of its young citizens a sound basic education.

NSJ: Can you talk about your relationship with Justice Orr. Did you work closely with him in 2004 when he wrote that opinion?

RL: I did not know Justice Orr until well after he issued Leandro II and retried from the bench.  I’ve had the opportunity to sit down and talk with him and Justice Burley Mitchell (authored Leandro I) and it is fascinating to hear their stories and what went into their individual decisions.  I’ve had the opportunity to get to know Judge Orr better over the years and admire his courage and resolve in issuing the Leandro II decision.  I’m sure it was not easy for him to make that decision and I know with all cases that make it to the Supreme Court there are good legal arguments to be made on both sides of a case, but I think he got it right (for obvious reasons) and I’m glad he was willing to stick his neck out and write the decision he did.

NSJ: On a daily basis how does the case impact you?

RL: Honestly and unfortunately the case never had a direct impact on me in terms of my education.  By the time it was decided I was in college and then law school.  But I have had the honor of being associated with the case for all of my adult life and you’d be surprised how often it comes up.  I bet at least once a month someone will call or ask me to talk about it.  Leandro is not the most common name so sometimes I’ll be in the checkout line at the grocery store and the clerk will see my name on my bank card and ask if I’m the Leandro.  When I’m practicing before a new judge I can count on it being the first question I get from the bench.  And I’ve tried to always talk to groups, journalist, academics, conferences, really whoever asks, because I think it’s important that the story gets out there, that more people know what the NC Constitution guarantees in terms of education and that we constantly build momentum toward finding a way to get there for all of North Carolina’s students.

NSJ: Anything else you can add about what it has been like in general to be in the public spotlight for most of your life due to this? 

RL: I always like to say this to anyone who asks – Leandro is not and should not be a political issue.  If there is one thing we should be able to agree on whether you are liberal or conservative is that kids deserve at least a sound basic education and society will be better for it when we start providing it.  It also should not be a political issue because when we first filed the suit almost everything political in North Carolina was dominated by the democratic party and clearly they were the party in charge at the time the Court determined that North Carolina had failed to provide students a sound basic education.  Now the party power structure has flipped to a large degree over the last 10 years but the same issues remain in terms of students seeking an opportunity to obtain a sound basic education in many of North Carolina’s schools.  Given that neither party can say its blameless and neither has a monopoly on good ideas, my sincere hope has always been that Leandro might serve as an opportunity for both parties to come together and say we may disagree on a lot of things but not this.