RALEIGH — A judge has ruled that the state cannot deny poor children access to the state's pre-kindergarten program, striking down apparent limits in the recent budget authored by Republicans.
Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard E. Manning Jr. issued an order Monday that the state cannot implement any barrier or regulation that prevents eligible at-risk children from enrolling in the state's pre-kindergarten program, previously known as More at Four.
Manning cited a provision in the new law spelling out a 20 percent cap for at-risk children, which would dramatically reduce the number of slots for them. The budget also cut the program's budget by 20 percent, or $32 million, and specified that families who are not "at risk" would be charged copayments.
Manning's order opens fresh questions for pre-kindergarten programs in North Carolina, a state that has built a reputation for its focus on high-quality preschool. The state's educational program for 4-year-olds is now known as the N.C. Pre-Kindergarten Program under a recent name change.
"This case is about the individual right of every child to have the equal opportunity to obtain a sound basic education," Manning wrote in the order. "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 pre-kindergarten] 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 plaintiffs in the long-running Leandro school quality lawsuit - five 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.
Manning's order does not find fault with education budget cuts in general or with pre-kindergarten funding.
But the impact of the ruling was far from clear late Monday. Democrats pounced and called for lawmakers to do a rewrite. Republicans insisted that Manning had misinterpreted the intent of the budget bill.
House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Cornelius Republican, issued a statement: "I am disappointed in today's order from Judge Manning. The court's ruling is unclear in key places and may be incorrect as a matter of law."
Senate leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, said the legislative intent was not to limit the program to 20 percent of at-risk participants.
"I'm fairly confident that that is a poorly worded provision in the budget," he said of the language spelling out the limit.
"I think we all ought to kind of take a step back and make sure we understand exactly what he's done and exactly what we're looking at," Berger added.
He said the legislature's research staff will examine the wording more closely.
Calling for do-over
Democrats, meantime, applauded Manning's decision.
Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue, whose veto of the budget was overridden, said it was time for lawmakers to go back to the drawing board.
"I call upon our legislative leaders to act swiftly to fix this injustice so these children can start school in the fall, but in doing so they should not inflict further cuts on other educational programs," Perdue said in a statement.
Melanie Dubis, attorney for the Leandro plaintiffs, pointed out that testimony in the hearing indicated that the state has more than 65,000 4-year-olds who could be deemed "at risk," but fewer than half of them are currently served.
So Manning's order could be read to mean that all of those children have a right to pre-kindergarten, she said.
"This is a great ruling for the at-risk four year olds in the state of North Carolina," she said. "I think Judge Manning got it right."
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