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The Problem (If a-b=0, and 0-0 = 0, then 0-1 = 9)

Howard Manning des not mince words. Nor does he care for excuses.

If students at an elementary school can't read, the principals and teachers are "deadwood" that must be cleared away, he says.

That's not the kind of statement that would be issued by the governor, state superintendent or even local school board members. And it's unfair to tag everyone at a struggling school with the same disparaging brand.

Yet, Manning plays a vital role in enforcing education policy in North Carolina. The Wake County Superior Court judge was empowered by the state Supreme Court to oversee the implementation of its Leandro rulings, which said every child has the right to receive a sound, basic education.

Manning summoned school leaders from Guilford, Forsyth and Durham counties to his courtroom Tuesday to tell him how they're going to fix failing schools.

The answer he liked best came from Guilford County Superintendent Mo Green, who explained the drastic actions taken at Oak Hill Elementary in High Point. The principal there has been replaced and the entire teaching staff was required to reapply for employment. Only one-fourth did.

"I applaud what you're doing at Oak Hill," Manning said, referring to students there and at Wiley Elementary in Greensboro as "victims of incompetence."

Last year's end-of-grade tests showed fewer than 30 percent of Oak Hill and Wiley students meeting the state's standard for reading proficiency. That's worse than the marks in Halifax County schools. where Manning found evidence of "academic genocide" and directed a state takeover last year.

He hasn't ordered any remedies yet for Guilford County schools, where he's reviewing actions plans for two dozen schools, be he made two things clear Tuesday: He expects better results, and teachers and principals who don't deliver should be removed.

The Supreme Court said that equal access to a sound basic education requires competent, certified, well-trained teacher in every classroom, a competent principal at every school and the resources necessary to support every child's educational needs. When test scores show such low levels of academic achievement, Manning sees evidence of constitutional violations and demands changes.

That's the easy part. The judge isn't responsible for finding better principals and teachers or for providing additional services for struggling students. He doesn't even have to recognize that other factors beyond the control of school staff can account for students' learning problems. He only has to insist on results.

But results do count. Failure isn't acceptable. Manning's concerns should give direction to local school boards, county commissioners, state legislators, the state superintendent, the State Board of Education and the governor. Collectively, they're not getting the job done, which might mean Manning hasn't found the last of the deadwood.

STARNEWS
Sunday, May 9, 2010