Memo to Supe: You Should Not Litigate Learning!

“[T]he administration of the public schools of the state is best left to the legislative and executive branches of government.”          Leandro, 346 N.C. at 357, 488 S.E.2d at 261.

As the Lee County Board of Commissioners, the Lee County Superintendent of Schools and the Lee County Board of Education prepare to engage in discussions about funding K-12 public education for next year, I think it necessary for them to reflect on one enduring principle that we’ve come to understand since the mid-1990’s spate of public education court cases in North Carolina: to wit, you simply should not litigate learning.  Sure, you can threaten lawsuits.  You can pursue cases for a decade or longer (as has been the case in Leandro).  You can even appeal cases all the way to the NC and U.S. Supreme Courts.  But in the end, you cannot litigate learning and expect optimal educational results.

This is the first article in a series of posts on public education law and its impact on the county’s K-12 public school budget.  Throughout  these articles, we will examine our Public School Superintendent’s extensive history involving the NC court system and public education law.  This is not an exhaustive treatise on Dr. Moss; but rather, it is a reasonable exposure of what appears to be his propensity for using the court system to accomplish public school purposes and the deleterious results that ensue.   

Dr. Moss has been active in North Carolina public schools since at least 1984.  He publicly claims 17 years of service in Hoke County, much of it as an administrator.  Beginning in 2000, Dr. Moss became the Superintendent in Stanly County, NC and he moved to Beaufort County, NC to take the Superintendent job there in 2004.  He moved to Lee County, NC in early 2009 to occupy the same position, here.  In total, Dr. Moss has more than 27 years of educational experience with much of that as an administrator or superintendent.  During just the past 17 or so years, Dr. Moss appears to have been directly or indirectly associated with at least seven lawsuits, including several significant cases that captured public attention as they played out in the NC Supreme Court.  Today we start with his school system’s role in Leandro.

Recall that Dr. Moss was in the Hoke County school system for 17 years.  According to public records he was the Associate Superintendent of Schools for Curriculum and Technology from at least 1995 (perhaps earlier).  It was during his tenure in that capacity that the Hoke County schools were engaged in a landmark lawsuit today referred to as Leandro v. State of North Carolina (488 S.E.2d 249 (N.C. 1997).  The background and essence of this case is nicely summarized at:

During much of Dr. Moss’ period of service in Hoke County, the school system performed so poorly that their horrible educational deficiencies became the basis of the Leandro case against the state.  The school system, parents and children in the Leandro case joined together to sue the state for more funding, arguing in part that more money from the state would fix their schools.   However, the lower courts and the NC Supreme Court noted the Hoke County School System (of which Dr. Moss was a major figure) had failed to provide Hoke County students the opportunity for a sound basic education.    Because the schools were considered a subdivision and agent of the state, the school system was in effect culpable for failing to properly educate their children.  Worse still, the sheer expense and energy required to try the case were decried by the Supreme Court:

“From the outset, we note that the ensuing trial lasted approximately fourteen months and resulted in over fifty boxes of exhibits and transcripts, an eight-volume record on appeal, and a memorandum of decision that exceeds 400 pages. The time and financial resources devoted to litigating these issues over the past ten years [undoubtedly] have cost the taxpayers of this state an incalculable sum of money. While obtaining judicial interpretation of our Constitution in this matter and applying it to the context of the facts in this case is a critical process, one can only wonder how many additional teachers, books, classrooms, and programs could have been provided by that money in furtherance of the requirement to provide the school children of North Carolina with the opportunity for a sound basic education.”      NC Supreme Court Justice Robert Orr

The impact was not limited to Hoke County and the courts.  The Leandro case spun off into four related cases between Hoke plus other counties and the State, now referred to as Leandro II, costing millions of dollars more in litigation costs, with each case seeking judicial interpretation and clarification of the original Leandro ruling.  The summary of thses cases and ruling can be found here:

Now, let’s look back to see what Dr. Moss, the Hoke County schools, and the state courts have achieved through all those tens of millions of dollars and thousands of hours in litigation effort. 

First let’s look at SAT scores.  During 1997, at the height of the Leandro  litigation, Hoke County students scored an average score of 856, a full 122 points below the state average.  Ten years later the students scored a mere 870, now 134 points behind the state average.  Even more interesting, in 2008, eleven years after the Leandro ruling, Hoke County students scored an average of only 832 points, which was 175 points below the state average.  Both of these results are believed to be record lows for Hoke County’s overall SAT score and degree of separation from the state average.    I guess Leandro didn’t fare so well in improving that universal benchmark.

Next, let’s look at end-of-grade test scores for all students.  In 1997 Hoke County students were faring poorly at only 53.1% achieving grade level.  For the 2007/08 grade year, Hoke County students only achieved 41.9% at grade level for reading, and 55.4% for math, some of the worst outcomes across the state, now ten years after all that litigation.  Clearly, there was no discernable benefit from Leandro.

So how about drop-out rates, you ask?  Well, in 1998-99 school year (the earliest year of drop-out data posted by NC DPI), Hoke County suffered a 7.6% drop-out rate across all demographics.  For the 2006-07 academic year, that rate was still hovering at 7.65%, showing no improvement.  However, the past three years have witnessed a dramatic progressive reduction in drop-out rates in Hoke County.   It is possible the Leandro litigation had some eventual impact on reducing high school drop-outs in Hoke County, but then again, that improvement could be the result of other, more recent changes in school policies and programs, completely independent form Leandro rulings and mandates.  More investigation is needed on that one. 

In closing this first installment on the subject of public education litigation, let me simply suggest that litigation has not contributed measurably to improving educational outcomes in Hoke County schools.  Subsequent posts will address Dr. Moss’ track record for litigating learning in Stanly and Beaufort Counties.  Stay tuned…

About John Jay

First Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court; Author of several of the Federalist Papers
This entry was posted in Budget, Education, Lee County Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

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