Judge rules state can't deny poor kids access to pre-K program

Staff writerJuly 18, 2011 

A judge has ruled that the state cannot deny poor children access to the state run four-year-old prekindergarten program as spelled out in new regulations in the Republican-authored budget law.

Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard E. Manning Jr. ruled today that the state cannot implement any artificial barrier or regulation that prevents poor children from enrolling in the state's pre-kindergarten program formerly known as More at Four. The state budget had included a 20 percent cap for at-risk children, effectively reducing the number of slots for at-risk children by 80 percent.

Manning's ruling said the state cannot implement that budget rule because it would run afoul of the Supreme Court rulings in the landmark Leandro case. That case established the standard that all children have the constitutional right to a sound basic education. The state's More at Four prekindergarten program grew out of the Leandro case and was North Carolina's attempt to prepare low-income children for kindergarten.

But critics have said that the budget, written by the new Republican majority, would transform the More at Four program by transferring it from the state's education department, limiting the participation for at-risk children and charging a copayment that would deter poor families from enrolling their children.

"This case is not numbers and slots," Manning wrote in the ruling. "This case has always been about the rights of children. This case is about the individual right of every child to have the equal opportunity to obtain a sound basic education. The constitutional right belongs to the child, not to the adults. Each at-risk four year old that appears at the doors of the [North Carolina prekindergarten] program this fall is a defenseless, fragile child whose background of poverty or disability places the child at-risk of subsequent academic failure."

The ruling comes after a two-day court hearing in June in which the Leandro plaintiffs -- low-wealth school districts in North Carolina -- challenged the budget cuts enacted by the legislature for the coming year. A major focus of the hearing was More at Four and the changes that plaintiffs argued would keep out poor children the program was designed to serve.

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