‘Feel more pain’: southeastern NC is at the heart of a 30-year public education fight

By Ben Rappaport


For 28 days, Angus Thompson has been undergoing intensive radiation therapy at UNC Health Southeastern in Lumberton. The treatments have left him tired and he now walks with two canes for support.

But the fire hasn’t left the 72-year-old retired public defender. Neither has the fervor in his booming voice. He’s a presence that demands attention and a listening ear when he speaks. 

When he’s not recovering from radiation therapy, Thompson is fiercely advocating for the same struggle that has been top of mind for the past 30 years: public education.

The pain he feels today, he says, is nothing compared to the decades-long fight he’s endured in pursuit of adequate funding for public education in Robeson County and across North Carolina. 

Angus Thompson, right, talks with Katie Eddings, left, at a rally for Leandro in downtown Raleigh last Thursday. Thompson was one of the original plaintiffs in Leandro v. North Carolina in 1994. Photo by Ben Rappaport

“You’re getting ready to feel more pain,” he told a room of Lumberton residents at a rally earlier this month. “You got to get off your behind, get in the streets and help yourself, or the time will come and you’ll feel some more pain from the kids in the schoolhouse.”

The rally, hosted by Seeds of Hope CDC and Every Child NC, was meant to drum up support for statewide public education funding through the Leandro Plan.

The Lumberton native was one of the original plaintiffs in Leandro v. North Carolina. The N.C. Supreme Court case, now in its fifth iteration, began in 1994 when five low-wealth rural counties — Cumberland, Halifax, Hoke, Robeson and Vance counties — filed a lawsuit against the state for underfunding public schools. They claimed their constitutional rights were being violated because they were not provided a “sound, basic education.” 

Leandro has been in legal limbo for 30 years. In November 2022, the court ruled the General Assembly must fund the first three years of the Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan, which would provide more than $8 billion to public school districts by 2028. The funding includes money for increasing teacher pay, improving staff retainment and increasing access to public early childcare. 

The legislature funded only the first year of that plan, however, because the remaining money was blocked in February, 2023 in a suit filed by Sen. Phil Berger and Rep. Tim Moore, Republican leaders of the state Senate and House, respectively. The court raised questions about the legality of ordering the state to transfer funds without the direction of the legislature. This meant the case went back to court. 

Adrienne Kennedy, cofounder of Seeds of Hope CDC in Lumberton, marches by the Capitol Building in Raleigh on Feb. 22, chanting ‘Hey, hey what do you say? Why don’t you cut the check today?’ Photo by Ben Rappaport

During that time, elections flipped the N.C. Supreme Court from a 4-3 Democratic majority to a 5-2 Republican majority. Attorneys for Moore and Berger waited until after the election to file the appeal. 

The first stage of the rehearing, which took place last Thursday, aimed to answer a narrow question: whether the legislature must pay the remaining $678 million from the second and third years to fund a statewide remedial plan for public schools. 

The arguments inside the courtroom last Thursday, however, extended far beyond the initial question. Justices and attorneys revisited rulings from 1997 and 2004 Leandro opinions, and the defense rehashed arguments over whether the original five school boards had legal standing to issue a statewide remedy. While nothing official was decided on Thursday, reports speculated the court seems poised to overrule the 2022 Leandro opinion. 

Thompson, who has been in this fight since the beginning, believes what happens inside the courtroom is primarily affected by the will of the people. That’s why he continues to show up wherever he can to educate and protest.

Before the hearing last Thursday, Thompson made sure to schedule his radiation appointment first thing in the morning. He drove home from the hospital, changed into a spiffy, navy blue suit and gold tie, then made the 95-mile trip from Lumberton to downtown Raleigh, arriving at the courthouse by 9 a.m. so he could hear the arguments firsthand.

The courtroom, however, was filled and Thompson wasn’t allowed inside, but he said what he saw outside was more inspiring. Hundreds of students, teachers, organizers and education advocates held signs and demonstrated support for the cause he helped bring to the forefront.

An advocate holds a sign reading ‘We love our teachers’ at a rally in downtown Raleigh in support of increasing public education funding. Photo by Ben Rappaport

He wasn’t the only one who made the trek from Lumberton. A bus with two dozen students and advocates left from Sandy Grove Baptist Church, a predominantly Black church in Lumberton. They came, bearing tambourines, posters reading “We Can’t Wait, Invest in Education Now,” and snacks to fuel the long journey.

On the bus ride north, excitement was high but the mood was tense. Clad in all black, the crew on the bus said they chose their attire because they — a rural African American community — had been left in the dark for too long.

“For far too long we in Robeson County have lacked adequate access to teachers, counselors, and the resources afforded to wealthier students,” said Shalonda Reagan, co-founder of Seeds of Hope CDC. “This is a manufactured harm to the children and we simply cannot wait any longer.”

She said it was important for her to bring students from Robeson and surrounding counties to show there are still students suffering from lackluster public education facilities and educators and staff, which she says could be fixed with the Leandro dollars. “There are still Leandros here,” she said.

According to a database from Every Child NC, Robeson County would receive 42% more  funding over the next four years if the state unlocked funds for Leandro. That additional $69 million could help fund up to 313 additional teachers, 63 social workers and 224 additional school staff across the county. 

A protestor in downtown Raleigh last Thursday holds a sign reading ‘The Drain on Public Schools’ at a rally in support of the release of Leandro funding. Photo by Ben Rappaport

Other school districts in southeastern North Carolina would benefit from funding through the Leandro plan. According to the database, Bladen County Schools would see an additional $14.4 million, Columbus County Schools an additional $18 million, Whiteville City Schools an additional $7.1 million, and Scotland County Schools an additional $18.6 million. 

“We should be pissed off about this every day,” said Carlton Powell, a lawyer with Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Right to Education Project. “This is a civil rights issue. It’s been 30 years. The courts have said we deserve the funding three separate times, yet there’s still no check.”

Leandro supporters in Robeson County agree with Powell. Nearly all the organizers and activists are Black. Many are from south Lumberton, a predominantly Black community where several schools are “low-performing” by state standards.

Meanwhile, Republicans Sen. Danny Britt and Rep. Jarrod Lowery of Robeson County have pushed for expanding the state’s voucher program, which allows families to send their children to private schools if they qualify. Public education advocates claim the vouchers divert funding from public education.

Rev. Paul Robeson Ford of Winston-Salem leads a group of public education advocates through downtown Raleigh on Feb. 22 to support the full funding of the Leandro Plan, which would bring millions of dollars to public schools across the state. Photo by Ben Rappaport

Every Child NC issued a legislative sign-on letter in support of Leandro signed by 68 legislators. Rep. Garland Pierce, a Democrat representing Scotland County, was the only legislator in the four Border Belt counties — Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland — to sign onto the letter. The House and Senate Democratic caucuses also issued a letter of support saying they will each file a bill supporting the entirety of the Leandro plan during the short session in April. 

The voucher program was expanded to its highest spending at the beginning of the year, doubling state spending from $170 million to more than $400 million. The expansion also removed the income cap, meaning any family, regardless of wealth, can qualify for the public money to send their child to private school.

“The vouchers you see today, they did the same thing after Brown v. Board of Education in forced integration 1955,” Thompson said. “Whites could leave the public schools and have their own private schools and be funded. Sound familiar?”

Thompson joined the fight for Leandro in 1994 in large part because he said denial of a sound, basic education created greater harm for students of color and those from families with low incomes. Thirty years later, he’s still pushing the message.

“I’ve seen this before,” he said. “You’ve got to feel more pain for this issue. Then you got to pray, you got to protest, and you got to vote.”

Student advocates with Every Child NC marched through downtown Raleigh on Feb. 22 advocating for the full funding of the Leandro Plan, which would bring millions of dollars to public schools across the state. Photo by Ben Rappaport