Fulfill state's broken promise on pre-K program

October 16, 2013 

Isn’t this lovely? North Carolina now is in the state Supreme Court defending a broken promise. It was a promise backed by court rulings that the state would provide pre-kindergarten for poor children. Yes, this will keep us on the national map as a state marching backward, with Republican legislators carrying the flags at the front of the parade.

Then-Gov. Mike Easley pushed, and rightly so, a pre-K program created in 2004 to respond to court rulings that found North Carolina has a legal obligation (in addition to a moral one) to provide a “sound, basic education” for all children. The rulings stemmed from the Leandro case, a suit filed in 1994 on behalf of students in five poor counties.

Ultimately, the courts decided that North Carolina needed to live up to that obligation, and Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning was charged with enforcing it. He’s been admirably determined to do so, which is why he rejected the notion of Republican lawmakers in 2011 that they could limit access to pre-K programs.

Now the issue is before the state Supreme Court, with the state arguing that there is no constitutional guarantee for preschool. Further, the state’s case is that Manning overreached in saying in effect that there is such a guarantee.

Things have come to a sorry pass when the state is trying to slip out of an obligation it ought to be proud to fulfill. It is a simple fact that kids, particularly those from poor and troubled backgrounds, do better when they start school if they have had experience with pre-kindergarten.

The state should be eager and proud to provide this experience. It is the right thing to do, and the smart thing to do. Students off to a better start go further in education. When they go further, the state does, too, with more educated and successful citizens.

Court rulings have upheld the “sound, basic” principle, and one hopes the state’s highest court will do the same.

The beating taken by the preschool program was of course not a surprise. Republican lawmakers did away with the “More at Four” name to eliminate any chance that credit for a virtuous program would go to Democrat Easley. And they fought tooth and nail to stop pre-K expansion attempts by then-Gov. Beverly Perdue, who tried to expand enrollment by moving money into the program from other sources.

With Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in office and brought under rein by GOP legislative leaders, there’s little chance of the pre-K effort having advocates in high governmental places, so the high court’s ruling is going to be very important to poorer families in North Carolina and to public education in general.

Ideally, the court will support previous rulings and Manning. It should call for pre-K to be fully expanded to fulfill the state’s obligation under the state Constitution. That will leave no opening for the Republican extremists in the General Assembly who want to cut support for the program.

A “sound, basic education” for all children isn’t a gift. It is the least the state should do for its younger citizens. It should be viewed as a noble mission to bring all North Carolinians together, not as a political plaything used to divide them. Two former state Supreme Court justices are on the side, the right side, in this case, supporting advocates for underserved children. Let us hope their former colleagues do likewise.

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