The pre-K route

Legally required or not, pre-K programs for poor kids are a smart public investment.

June 7, 2012 

North Carolina for several years has been trying to identify what it should be required to do in preparing children, especially poor children, to take full advantage of public school. There are strong legal arguments in favor of pre-kindergarten programs.

But however the state constitution and the tangled history of the landmark Leandro school opportunities case are sliced and diced, it couldn’t be clearer that pre-K ought to be made widely available as a matter of good public policy.

It’s true that a pre-K bill given final passage Tuesday by the state House has the look of a last-ditch attempt to keep the courts from enforcing an even more ambitious regime. The upshot, though, is to boost an important effort that until recently was getting mainly cold shoulders and curled lips from the legislature’s Republican majority. Pre-K has been, after all, a favorite cause of top Democrats such as former Gov. Mike Easley and his successor, Gov. Beverly Perdue.

Now to be savored is the wisdom of senior GOP Rep. Leo Daughtry of Smithfield, who once hoped to claim the governor’s perch that went to Easley.

Daughtry counseled his colleagues that Howard Manning Jr., the Superior Court judge whose rulings have prodded the state to honor its constitutional obligations toward its young people, doesn’t miss many tricks.

Manning has been accused by some of his fellow Republicans of over-reaching during the years he has been in charge of seeing that rulings in the Leandro case have been followed. The state Supreme Court used the case to affirm the state’s responsibility to give every child an equal shot at a “sound basic education” in public school – even in the poorest of counties, such as the five that were original parties to the lawsuit.

But Manning “is a very thorough judge,” Daughtry said. “He has ... come to the conclusion that those young people in those five counties who do not get pre-K training are at a real disadvantage, to the point they are unable to perform well in school.” That, in a nutshell, is the basis for Manning’s insistence that pre-K is not only useful to kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, but that it also should be provided as a matter of right.

The legislation now headed for Perdue’s desk makes the state’s pre-K program more affordable by eliminating co-payments that lower-income parents would struggle to make. It also adjusts eligibility rules so more disadvantaged children stand to benefit.

It was impossible not to notice the coincidence in timing: On the day the House acted, the latest twist in the Leandro case was the focus of arguments in the Court of Appeals.

A three-judge panel was being asked to affirm Manning’s ruling that, when it comes to 4-year-olds considered academically at risk because of meager family income, the state cannot put limits on its pre-K program that keep some of those kids from attending. In the awkward position of defending Republican budget decisions, the office of Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper disputed Manning’s conclusion that access to pre-K for poor kids is constitutionally required.

It would be no surprise to see the case go before the Supreme Court yet again. But the smart policy choice is obvious. Kids – all kids – need to start regular school equipped with the simple skills and habits that give them a decent chance to succeed. That’s what pre-K is all about. And North Carolina invests in its future when it finds a pre-K slot for every child who can benefit from that sort of help.

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