GOP leaders ask judge: Pre-K for all 4-year-olds?

Staff writerAugust 16, 2011 

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Howard Manning

TAKAAKI IWABU — TAKAAKI IWABU - tiwabu@newsobserver.com

Republican legislative leaders on Monday asked a Superior Court judge to clarify his order on the state's pre-kindergarten program to make sure he didn't mean all eligible 4-year-olds should be enrolled whether or not the state can afford it.

Controversy and confusion have swirled around the program, formerly known as More at Four, ever since the state budget passed and attorneys for poor counties asked for a court hearing over education cuts.

Wake Superior Court Judge Howard Manning last month said the state could not deny poor 4-year-olds access to pre-kindergarten, reading a budget provision that appeared to cap enrollment of at-risk students at 20 percent.

Republicans said the budget language on pre-kindergarten was misinterpreted.

Schools and other pre-kindergarten providers don't know how many spaces they have or how to handle the program with the new fees for families the legislature imposed. Democrats called for Republicans to add more money for pre-kindergarten.

Gov. Bev Perdue last week issued an executive order saying that the state will plan to enroll all eligible at-risk students and that providers should waive any fee that would prevent the children from attending.

The festering confusion erupted into another skirmish between the Democratic governor and Republican legislators.

In their request for clarification, lawyers for House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate leader Phil Berger told Manning that the legislature intended the 20 percent limit for children who are at-risk for reasons other than financial hardship, such as children in military families and children with chronic illnesses.

They also want Manning, who monitors the long-running case over school quality, to say that the state does not have to pay for enrollment that outstrips its budget, regardless of what Perdue said in her executive order.

Last year, enrollment was about 32,000 at a cost of $161 million, at a time when more than 65,000 4-year-olds would have qualified as "at-risk."

Berger, an Eden Republican, said in a statement that Perdue was picking a political fight to bolster her poll numbers.

"The best way to protect North Carolina's children and their future is to keep our budget balanced, protect our AAA credit rating, and resist the urge to recklessly spend money we don't have," he said. "Our children and all North Carolinians, need leaders willing to protect our state's fragile economy - not career politicians who use kids as pawns to win the next election."

Perdue's office released a statement saying Republicans want to squeeze academic pre-kindergarten and keep needy children out.

"The Republican leadership in the legislature is trying to slam the door in the faces of 4-year-olds who are eligible for this program," Perdue spokeswoman Chris Mackey said in a statement. "The truth is they are trying to defund academic pre-kindergarten, put up barriers to it and reduce the academic content."

Republicans appear to be ready to appeal Manning's order.

In their statement, Tillis and Berger said the state Attorney General's Office told legislators it would file notice of appeal of Manning's ruling by Wednesday. A spokeswoman for the Attorney General's Office could not be reached.

lynn.bonner@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4821

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