Wording pits judge against legislators

Staff WriterJuly 19, 2011 

— Do Republican lawmakers seek to deny pre-kindergarten education to most economically disadvantaged 4-year-olds? Or has a poorly worded legislative provision led to a very big misunderstanding?

That's the question to be sorted out after Monday's order by Judge Howard E. Manning Jr.

If the state restricts its pre-kindergarten programs for poor children, it will run afoul of its constitutional duty to provide all children with a sound basic education under Supreme Court rulings in the landmark Leandro case, Manning wrote in his order.

The state's pre-kindergarten program, formerly known as More at Four, grew out of the Leandro case and was North Carolina's attempt to prepare low-income children for success in kindergarten.

Critics of the recent Republican-authored budget say the well-regarded More at Four program, now called N.C. Pre-Kindergarten, is headed for a transformation. The budget cut the program by 20 percent, transferred it out of the state's education department and charged copayments for the first time.

What the judge read

It also apparently set a limit on participation by at-risk 4-year-olds. Manning's order focuses on specific language in the budget law, which states: "the total number of at-risk children served shall constitute no more than twenty percent (20 percent) of the four-year-olds served in the pre-kindergarten program."

Manning zeroed in on that sentence, saying the language appears "intentionally designed" to eliminate or severely reduce the program's pre-K services for poor children.

"The limitation of 20 percent is a deliberate and material change to the pre-kindergarten program which has been designed and expanded to serve almost 40,000 at-risk 4-year-olds statewide," Manning wrote. "The result is that the pre-kindergarten program for at-risk 4-year-olds is being opened to 80 percent of children who are not at-risk and therefore excluding 80 percent of those children who are at-risk 4-year-olds."

Manning further pointed out that the budget language calls for state policy "to encourage all pre-kindergarten classrooms to blend private pay families with pre-kindergarten subsidized children."

"While this form of economic and social 'blending' may appear benign on the surface, its intended effect ... is to open the at-risk 4-year-old pre-kindergarten program to 4-year-olds who are not at risk and who previously would not have been eligible," Manning wrote in his order.

What legislators read

Republican leaders maintain that Manning has misinterpreted the budget language.

Senate leader Phil Berger issued a statement explaining that the law does just the opposite - that it caps at 20 percent the number of students deemed at risk for reasons other than financial hardship, such as children of active-duty military, disabled children or children with limited English proficiency.

"We disagree with Judge Manning's interpretation, and we are confident his opinion does not throw the state budget out of balance," said Berger, an Eden Republican. "The budget does not cap the number of low-income students eligible for the program. In fact, the 20 percent cap exists, and has for several years, specifically to ensure at least 80 percent of the children enrolled are financially disadvantaged."

Later, after re-reading the budget language, Berger said in an interview he could understand why Manning had concerns. It's confusing, he said.

"What you have is a very poorly drafted section of the budget," he said. "The legislative intent, in terms of the program, was that the 20 percent limitation only applied to those non low-income, at-risk kids."

He said Republicans had intended to open up pre-kindergarten education to more children who are not considered financially needy but have other risk factors, but never intended for those students to be in the majority.

Berger said he doesn't expect to have to rewrite the budget language. Perhaps Manning's invalidation of that part of the budget bill actually is closer to lawmakers' intent and will take care of the problem, he said.

jane.stancill@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4559

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