Commentary, Education

Judge Howard Manning’s misguided views on education should also be retired

Retired Judge Howard Manning

Now-retired North Carolina Superior Court Judge Howard Manning’s chief claim to fame during a lengthy judicial career came from overseeing the landmark Leandro school funding case from 2000 to 2015. Over this period, Manning held several hearings, often scolding state officials for failing to provide North Carolina’s students with the education they are owed under our state constitution.

While these hearings helped highlight the state’s unwillingness to live up to its constitutional responsibilities, particularly for low-income students, the judge never placed concrete demands on state lawmakers. As a result, his hearings produced few tangible results for North Carolina’s students. Independent school experts concluded that this period moved our state “further away from meeting its constitutional obligation to provide every child with the opportunity for a sound basic education than it was when the Supreme Court of North Carolina issued the Leandro decision more than 20 years ago.”

Since Manning’s retirement, dramatic advancements in the Leandro case are bringing us much closer to a school system that meets the needs of our students. In 2017, the Leandro plaintiffs and the state agreed that North Carolina had been failing its children for far too long and that the state needed a clear, comprehensive plan. Judge David Lee appointed some of the nation’s leading education experts to develop the plan. Their report, referred to as the WestEd report, provided the state with the long-overdue roadmap of investments and reforms necessary to deliver a “sound basic education” to all.

As a result, the state is now better positioned to meet its constitutional obligations than we ever were when the case was led by Manning. We now know exactly what needs to be done. This information has invigorated stakeholders across the state who are now mobilizing to pressure the General Assembly to enact these long overdue measures.

Enter Howard Manning, who has emerged from a quiet retirement to offer a recent interview and an op-ed, where he expresses skepticism towards the court’s current approach and lauds a failed Republican program focusing on early-grade literacy. Republican leaders are now seizing upon Manning’s misinformed commentary to justify their own inaction and unwillingness to improve our schools.

Manning’s op-ed claims the answer to delivering a sound basic education to all students is not money, but “competent management” from principals and “effective teaching.” In other words, it’s not the General Assembly’s well-documented decade of austerity and incompetence that’s to blame, it’s those no-good teachers.

Manning’s view flies in the face of overwhelming academic research, our own history in North Carolina, and his own past views.

In recent years, research has shown conclusively that increases in state funding, particularly those brought about in school funding cases like Leandro, boost test scoresraise graduation ratesreduce the likelihood of both poverty and incarceration in adulthood, and improve intergenerational social mobility. Notably, almost all of these studies show that the benefits from state funding increases tend to be larger for Black students and students from families with low incomes (i.e., the very children who were systematically denied access to a sound, basic education while Manning oversaw Leandro).

We don’t only have to look to policy experts. Our own experiences in the 1980s and 1990s also show how smart increases in state investment can improve achievement and narrow opportunity gaps. A recent report from the Learning Policy Institute detailed how “North Carolina’s sustained investments over two eras of reform in the 1980s and the 1990s enabled it to become the first high-poverty Southern state to achieve above national norms and to make more progress in closing the achievement gap during the 1990s than any other state.”

There was a time not so long ago that Judge Manning himself understood that adequate funding is a necessary component of student success. In 2004, Manning recommended the state create a new allotment to direct additional resources to disadvantaged students. A UNC evaluation found this new funding significantly boosted test scores in targeted high schools, cutting the test-score gap in half versus other high schools.

Manning also pushed the state to expand its high-quality prekindergarten program, which has been shown to boost performance through at least eighth grade and reduce rates of special education placement. Of course, expanding NC Pre-K to serve all eligible four-year-olds, as recommended by the WestEd report, requires money. It doesn’t get done by simply shaming teachers.

Bizarrely, Manning points to the Read to Achieve program as a serious effort to unlock student achievement. This program, championed by Senator Phil Berger in 2012, centers on retaining third graders who fail their end-of-grade standardized tests and then providing these students with additional resources. Little focus (or investment) is provided to actually help these children become successful readers before testing them.

Read to Achieve has been an abject failure. North Carolina administers end-of-grade tests in reading and math each year for grades 3-8, and for science in grades 5 and 8. Since the inception of Read to Achieve, performance has improved in every one of these 14 tests…except for third grade reading.

This period also coincides with a 34 percent reduction in funding for teacher assistants, the elimination of funding for professional development, and large shortfalls in funding for textbooks, supplies, and technology. Perhaps the problem isn’t that our teachers aren’t trying hard enough, but, as the courts now say, that they have been denied the resources necessary to succeed.

The old Judge Manning seemed to understand the importance of state funding in driving student success. Sadly, the Judge Manning of today is apparently unaware of the past 20 years of academic research on how funding drives improvement. He seems to have forgotten North Carolina’s impressive progress in the 1980s and 1990s. And the Judge Manning of today would apparently argue against past recommendations he made to increase investments for disadvantaged students and prekindergarten programs.

It’s unclear why the Judge Manning of today has decided to emerge from retirement to champion right-wing talking points that place blame on teachers rather than the powerful politicians who continue to deny them the tools necessary to succeed. But what is clear is that Manning is no longer deserving of serious consideration on these issues. The advice he’s peddling today is old, outdated, debunked, and ultimately harmful to students. Much like the judge himself, these ideas should be retired.

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