Vanderbilt Lawyer - Volume 35, Number 2

Real Time Lessons in law

3L Robb Leandro's case is still changing the quality of public education in North Carolina

Robb Leandro

In the spring of 1994, Robb Leandro's mother picked him up after baseball practice at Hoke County High School in rural Raeford, North Carolina, with some unusual news. The superintendent of schools had called. A group of the state's savviest lawyers had been gathering evidence that the North Carolina school system didn't deliver an adequate education to all of its students. Having completed their investigation of the school systems in five low-wealth counties, including Hoke, they needed a plaintiff to represent the students in these districts. Hoke County School Superintendent Bill Harris had suggested the Leandro family.

That's how Robb Leandro—then a high school sophomore—became the plaintiff in a landmark lawsuit against the state of North Carolina. Filed in May 1994, the suit challenged the way North Carolina educates its public school students. It also catapulted Leandro, a bright 15-year-old student in one of the state's least wealthy counties and one of its poorest school districts, into the headlines, where he (or his case) has continued to appear regularly for 11 years.

"We thought, 'Great!' Maybe it would be finished by the time I graduated, and I thought maybe we would get some new football or baseball uniforms," Leandro, now 26, recalls. "At first, we didn't realize it would be a really big deal."

After 11 years of litigation and two major North Carolina Supreme Court decisions—one upholding the right of every student to a sound basic education, and the other defining what the state would have to provide—the state's General Assembly is still struggling to determine how much money it should spend on low-wealth school districts as well as on urban districts that enroll large numbers of low-income students.

Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning, who expects to oversee the Leandro case the rest of his days on the bench, is pushing state officials to respond adequately to the courts' requirement to provide qualified teachers in every classroom, a competent principal in every school and sufficient resources for every class. But, while he has kept the heat on them to perform, he has resisted telling them how much money to spend.

In retrospect, Robb Leandro seems an unlikely choice for the brand-name defendant in a lawsuit about school funding. He comes from a middle-class family. After graduating from Hoke County High, he was awarded a prestigious Benjamin N. Duke Scholarship to Duke University, where he also played varsity football (offensive line) and majored in political science. Now in his third year at Vanderbilt Law School, he spent last summer as an associate at the Raleigh law firm of Parker, Poe, Adams and Bernstein, where one of the partners, Bob Spearman, was one of the lawyers who filed what is now nationally known as, simply, the Leandro case. Leandro will join the firm permanently as an associate after he graduates from Vanderbilt this spring.

In fact, Leandro acknowledges, "Taking part in this case was very important in pushing me toward a career in law. Seeing these attorneys in action made me realize that a legal education gives you the opportunity to effect change in a way that is not available to many professionals."

If Robb Leandro can succeed at Duke and Vanderbilt Law School, doesn't that indicate Hoke County schools are providing a sound education? According to Leandro, that's not the point. "I was lucky to have parents who pushed me to succeed and helped me with my school work," he says.

But when he got to Duke, he recalls, he realized how far behind he was compared with students who had graduated from well-funded schools with the latest lab equipment and who had been taught by veteran, motivated teachers, especially in science and math. Not that Hoke County schools had bad teachers—in fact, Leandro recalls, he had many good ones. But the best teachers typically didn't stay long. They could get better-paying teaching jobs in Charlotte or Winston-Salem or Chapel Hill. And those who did stay found themselves lacking basic classroom resources. "We'd run out of copy paper in February," he said. "If you could pay (extra) incentives to a teacher to come down and stay and provide funding for adequate resources, it really would make a difference."

While the Leandro case focused on the quality of education students in low-income counties received, it was essentially a lawsuit about money. "There are not a ton of incentives for members of the House or the Senate to put money into counties that are rural or poor," notes Leandro. "Politics follows the money, and we don't have the clout."

Leandro isn't giving up on the General Assembly as he prepares to start his law career. "One of the major reasons I wanted to return to North Carolina after graduation was to continue to work and push to make my state the very best," he says. "North Carolina is a great place. With a little work, it can be the most progressive state in the country. As it stands now, more money is going into the schools, but there is more to be done before the state fulfills its constitutional mandate to children in poor, rural counties."

Despite his personal experience in schools with limited resources, Leandro intends to send his own children to public schools. "I'm a huge supporter of the public school system," he says. "But if my kids were experiencing the same things I did, I would work with them the same way my father and mother did." In addition, Leandro notes, he would hire tutors to round out his children's education.

"I could afford that as a lawyer," Leandro says. "But there are a lot of people working the third shift who couldn't. It's those students we are fighting for."

—Condensed from a story by Jack Betts that appeared in the Charlotte Observer in July 2005. Updated and reprinted with permission.