Court considers whether NC obligated to provide preschool program

jstancill@newsobserver.comOctober 15, 2013 

  • The story so far

    Named for the lead plaintiff from Hoke County, the Leandro case is a long-running lawsuit about school quality that has had deep implications for public education in North Carolina.

    School districts in five poor counties – Hoke, Halifax, Robeson, Vance and Cumberland – sued the state, which led to two Supreme Court decisions in 1997 and in 2004.

    In the 1997 decision, known as Leandro I , the Supreme Court held that the state constitution guarantees every North Carolina child the right to a “sound basic education.” In the second decision, known as Leandro II, the Supreme Court held that the state’s efforts to provide that education to poor children were inadequate. But even though the trial court had proposed mandatory preschool for at-risk students, the Supreme Court said dictating a remedy would be inappropriate.

    Following Leandro II, Democratic Gov. Mike Easley pushed for a pre-K program to help prepare 4-year-olds to be successful in school. The program, originally known as More at Four, became the state’s remedy for complying with Leandro II. An estimated 67,000 at-risk 4-year-olds could qualify for the program, the state has estimated. Currently, 26,700 children are enrolled, down from 32,000 in 2010-11. Last year, the Republican-led legislature authored a budget that cut the program’s funding, authorized co-payments for the first time and included language that limited participation by poor children to 20 percent. The legislation also renamed the program NC Pre-K.

    In 2011, Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr. ruled that the state cannot deny poor children access to pre-K nor erect artificial barriers to the program. The legislature later acted to drop the co-payment and the 20 percent cap.

    The N.C. Court of Appeals upheld Manning’s order and the state appealed to the state Supreme Court.

— North Carolina’s highest court heard arguments Tuesday about the state’s promise of prekindergarten for tens of thousands of children living in poverty.

At issue is whether legislative cuts to the publicly funded pre-K program ran afoul of the state’s previous commitment to provide preschool for children at risk of failure in school.

The pre-K program, previously known as More at Four, was created in 2004 as a state response to court rulings in the long-running Leandro school quality lawsuit brought by poor counties. In the 19-year-old case, courts found that there is a constitutional right for all children to have a “sound, basic education.”

Tuesday’s oral arguments focused on whether the state has an obligation to provide public preschool to all low-income, at-risk North Carolina schoolchildren. For years, the state increased funding for the program, but in 2011, the legislature cut the program and placed limits on eligibility.

Later that year, Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr. ruled that the state could not deny access or erect such barriers to poor children. Though the legislature eventually dropped some of the eligibility limits, Manning’s ruling was upheld by the N.C. Court of Appeals.

The state Supreme Court did not issue a ruling Tuesday, but justices asked plenty of questions in the packed courtroom.

John F. Maddrey, state solicitor general, argued for the state in its appeal to the Supreme Court, saying that there is no constitutional guarantee to preschool. He said Manning exceeded his authority when he basically mandated pre-K for poor 4-year-olds statewide.

‘Not a binding ... obligation’

Maddrey said the creation of a pre-K proposal in 2004 by the State Board of Education and the state school superintendent was a statement about the state’s plans for the future. It was a pure policy decision, he said.

“That remains the goal, but that’s not a binding enforceable obligation of the state that requires the legislative branch to fund the program to achieve that goal,” Maddrey said.

Further, Maddrey argued, the court only had jurisdiction over the main plaintiff in the suit, Hoke County.

Melanie Dubis, attorney for the plaintiff school districts, contended that for years and throughout some 20 court hearings, the state repeatedly represented its pre-K program as its solution for helping poor children achieve a basic education.

While one legislature cannot bind another, Dubis said, the current legislature cannot ignore the only remedy the state ever presented to the court – prekindergarten.

If the plan for statewide pre-K is merely an aspiration, Dubis argued, then the state of North Carolina is in flagrant violation of the state constitution. The Supreme Court in 2004 found that the state violated the constitution because it was not adequately educating poor children and therefore needed a remedial strategy, she pointed out.

“And the state is saying in response to that, ‘We aspire to it, we’ll get around to it, it’s on our to-do list, eventually, maybe, to remedy a constitutional violation,’” Dubis said.

If that is still the situation nine years after the last big Leandro ruling, Dubis said, “certainly a court does have the authority to step in” and order the state to act.

No matter how the high court rules, it seems unlikely that the legislature would carve out about $300 million to fully fund preschool for an estimated 67,000 poor children annually.

A packed courtroom

Tuesday’s event drew a crowd to the courtroom, including two former Supreme Court justices who represent the State Board of Education and the North Carolina School Boards Association. Both sided with the plaintiffs and against the state.

Former Justice Jim Exum, representing the State Board of Education, said it’s time to put an end to “this long-running and vexatious” case.

“The board is weary of continuing to litigate these issues that it thought, and still believes, were settled,” Exum said.

Former Gov. Mike Easley showed up in the courtroom to watch the arguments. More at Four was created during Easley’s administration. He said he still believes in prekindergarten for poor children and that numerous research studies validate its effectiveness.

“They all show a dramatic reduction in the achievement gap, showing that impoverished children – those who are at risk – have improved,” Easley said, “and when they reach kindergarten, they’re ready to learn and move forward.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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