RALEIGH — A Wake County judge was within legal bounds, according to the State Court of Appeals, when he ruled that 2011 legislative changes to the state’s pre-kindergarten program violate the constitutional right to a sound, basic education for all North Carolina schoolchildren.
The Court of Appeals ruling was issued Tuesday morning, adding another twist to a protracted legal battle about the future of the state’s pre-kindergarten education for poor children.
The case pitted the state attorney general in June against lawyers representing five of the state’s poorest counties. They argued whether at-risk children could be denied access to the state’s pre-kindergarten program for 4-year-olds.
At issue were provisions in the Republican-authored state budget last year that cut funding, established a copayment and capped participation by poor children to 20 percent. Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning has said the 2011 legislative changes amounted to an artificial barrier preventing poor children from the pre-kindergarten program.
At the core of the legal debate is an18-year landmark case, known as Leandro, which has led to two state Supreme Court decisions and helped guide school funding decisions in North Carolina.
An estimated 67,000 at-risk 4-year-olds qualify for the program. In June, about 26,700 children were enrolled, down from 32,000 in 2010-11.
The Court of Appeals, in its ruling, stated that Manning acted within its authority to "mandate the unrestricted acceptance of all ’at-risk’ four year old prospective enrollees who seek to enroll inexisting pre-kindergarten programs across the state."
But the appeals court panel added that though the program called "More at Four" was the remedy chosen by the legislative and executive branches in 2001 to "deal with the problems presented by ’at risk’ four year olds, it is not necessarily a permanent or everlasting solution to the problem."
"What is required of the state to provide as ’a sound basic education’ in the 21st century was not the same as it was in the 19th century, nor will it be the same as it will be in the 22nd century," the Tuesday ruling states. "It would be unwise for the courts to attempt to lock the legislative and executive branches into a solution to a problem that no longer works, or addresses a problem that no longer exists."
Therefore, the panel said, the state should be allowed to modify the program, "should the problem at hand cease to exist or should its solution be superseded by another approach."
That, the panel ruled, should be done through the trial courts, setting forth the basis for and manner of any proposed modification.