Gov. Bev Perdue on Wednesday ordered pre-kindergarten classes be open to all eligible at-risk children even if their families cannot afford new fees.
She said she would call upon the legislature to pay for the youngsters' education if there isn't enough money in the budget.
Her executive order comes a few weeks after Wake Superior Court Judge Howard Manning ruled the state cannot set any barrier or regulation that prevents eligible at-risk children from enrolling in the state's pre-kindergarten program. His ruling grew from a complaint about the state budget, which cut spending on pre-kindergarten by 20 percent, required most families to pay fees for the first time, and appeared to limit enrollment of at-risk children to 20 percent, though Republicans said that is not what they meant to do.
Perdue's action "is in keeping with Judge Manning's order declaring the General Assembly's changes inconsistent with the Constitution," Perdue spokeswoman Chris Mackey said.
Perdue ordered the state Department of Health and Human Services, working with the state Department of Public Instruction, to develop a plan for all eligible at-risk 4-year-olds to be accepted into pre-kindergarten. The plan should identify and remove barriers - including the waiver of fees that would prevent at-risk students from attending - and provide for ways to search for eligible at-risk children who are not enrolled.
If there isn't enough money, "I will call upon the legislature to appropriate additional funds to meet our obligations," Perdue said in a statement.
GOP leaders protest
The legislature has not moved to provide more money for pre-kindergarten programs in the weeks since Manning issued his order, and Republicans criticized Perdue for trying to force the state to spend money it doesn't have.
"She's going to put our AAA bond rating at risk," said Senate leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican. He called Perdue's order "a political stunt," because she's looking to enroll many more children than have been in the state pre-kindergarten program, and more than she sought in her budget.
Enrolling all eligible children could cost $100 million or more, Berger said.
"We don't have the classrooms, we don't have the teachers, all of those things. The infrastructure doesn't exist for that," he said.
Rep. Justin Burr, an Albemarle Republican, said Perdue is trying to pass laws using an executive order.
"If there's any concern out there, that would be the concern that the governor is trying to legislate rather than be an executive," he said.
The fight over pre-kindergarten programs opens another front in the war between the Democratic governor and the Republican-controlled legislature.
In a historic showdown over spending, she vetoed the budget that includes the pre-kindergarten provisions, and the legislature overturned her veto.
The legislature has also clashed with Manning. In an earlier ruling this year, he sent a memo to legislative leaders warning of "a risk of constitutional confrontation" over a bill eliminating four standardized tests that later became law.
The constitutional confrontation Manning wrote of in February may be coming over pre-kindergarten funding, said John Dornan, former executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a Raleigh think tank.
"The General Assembly continues to pretend there is no ruling," said Dornan, who testified in the court hearing on education spending. "It leaves us with a mess that will probably take weeks if not months to resolve and is very likely to end up back in court."
The 20% clause
Manning based his order on a section of the budget that says "the total number of at-risk children served shall constitute no more than twenty percent (20%) of the four-year-olds served within the pre-kindergarten program."
The pre-kindergarten program, formerly known as More at Four, was created in 2001 for at-risk 4-year-olds. It grew out of the landmark Leandro case over school quality and was North Carolina's attempt to prepare low-income children for success in kindergarten.
Republicans said that they did not mean to cap at-risk enrollment at 20 percent and that the limit referred to students deemed at risk for reasons other than financial hardship.
But Burr said the legislature did intend for 80 percent of the families to pay fees of up to 10 percent of their income.
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