The future of statewide public preschool may be decided in a case the state Supreme Court will consider this week.
The court will hear arguments Tuesday morning on the states appeal of a 2011 Superior Court ruling that the state cannot impose barriers or regulations that prevent eligible children from enrolling in public preschool, called NC Pre-K. The state is challenging the ruling, saying Superior Court Judge Howard Manning has no authority to require a statewide prekindergarten program. At most, Manning could require it in one county, the state argues.
The whole program absolutely is at stake, said Christine Bischoff, a lawyer with the Education & Law Project at the N.C. Justice Center. If the Supreme Court does not back the Appeals Court decision upholding Manning, the state will not have an obligation to provide prekindergarten for at-risk students, she said.
The case puts back in public view the long-running Leandro school quality case that had the Supreme Court decide in 1997 that the legislature must give children in every district access to a sound basic education.
Originally, five poor counties, including Hoke County, brought the Leandro suit. The state lawyers fighting Mannings 2011 Pre-K ruling said that Mannings authority is limited to ordering preschool in Hoke County, at most. Hoke was one of the original five counties that brought the suit.
Giving Manning ongoing supervision over state infringes on policy decisions that are reserved for the governor and the legislature, wrote John F. Maddrey, state solicitor general.
NC Pre-K, which used to be called More At Four, started in 2002 under Democratic Gov. Mike Easley for 4-year-olds at risk of falling behind in school. The state, then controlled by Democrats, offered preschool as a strategy for complying with its constitutional obligation.
The Republican legislature has been limiting funds to the program, and enrollment has declined.
In 2011, the legislature passed a budget that appeared to put a 20 percent cap on enrollment by at-risk children, cut the programs budget 20 percent and specified that families of children who are not at-risk would be charged co-payments.
The Leandro plaintiffs challenged the law, which led to Mannings ruling that struck down the limits. The state never charged co-payments.
In February 2012, Former Gov. Bev Perdue used Mannings ruling to expand Pre-K without the legislatures consent.
The state Attorney Generals office then appealed Mannings ruling, and a Court of Appeals panel unanimously upheld it in August 2012. The state appealed again to the Supreme Court.
Easley filed a court document supporting Mannings ruling in July, saying that failing to provide NC Pre-K to at-risk students will widen the achievement gap and cause regression to a discriminatory system of education.
The N.C. Justice Center is formally supporting Mannings ruling, along with Disability Rights North Carolina, the N.C. School Boards Association and other groups. Former Supreme Court Justice Robert Orr is one of the lawyers representing the School Boards Association.
For years, legislative Republicans have questioned statewide preschool as a response to the requirement for educational quality.
Terry Stoops, director of education policy studies at the John Locke Foundation, said Republicans are going to have to think through their response to Leandro, whether theyll stick with statewide prekindergarten as a remedy or offer something else.
Until they do that, I think that Pre-K is going to be looked at through the courts as the remedy for Leandro, Stoops said.