RALEIGH — The state legislature last year reversed course on limits to pre-kindergarten programs for poor children, effectively resolving a legal challenge, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday.
But the court’s narrow decision didn’t answer the larger question about how far the state will go to extend early childhood education to needy children.
Friday’s ruling was the latest legal twist in a long-running case about the state’s commitment to education in its poorest counties.
At issue was a 2011 state budget provision that limited preschool seats for at-risk children and established a co-payment for the program. An immediate legal challenge was filed against those budget rules, contending the pre-K limits were unconstitutional.
Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr. agreed in a July 2011 order. The N.C. Court of Appeals upheld Manning’s ruling in 2012. But by then, the legislature had acted to eliminate the co-payment and amend the language about pre-K.
The Supreme Court concluded in its ruling that the “the questions originally in the controversy between the parties are no longer at issue.”
The NC 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 several poor counties. In the 19-year-old case, courts had found that there is a constitutional right for all children to have a “sound, basic education.”
On Friday, the high court reiterated that its previous Leandro rulings about that constitutional right “remain in full force and effect.”
At the same time, the court sidestepped an issue because it didn’t pass judgment on the legislation rewritten last year by Republican lawmakers.
‘As the legislature intended’
Senate leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, said in a statement that the decision was a “a clear affirmation of the General Assembly’s central role in shaping education policy – and the size and scope of North Carolina’s pre-K program.”
He said the ruling ensures the pre-K program will move forward “as the legislature intended – with 8 out of 10 pre-K slots serving children who are financially ‘at risk.’”
House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Mecklenburg Republican, said the court’s order “reinforces my own belief that we have taken seriously our constitutional duty to meticulously manage the resources of this state so that every child in North Carolina has an opportunity to obtain a sound basic education.”
Former Gov. Mike Easley, an architect of the pre-K program, viewed the decision differently.
“The NC Supreme Court fired a shot across the legislature’s bow,” he said in a statement. “The Court basically said ‘you created a problem, but you went back and fixed it. But don’t let it happen again.’”
Rob Thompson, executive director of the Covenant with North Carolina’s Children, saw positives and negatives in the ruling.
“We definitely would have liked the court to come back and say that all at-risk children have a right to access NC Pre-K,” he said. “At the same time, this decision does not absolve the legislature from its responsibility to invest in early education in young children.”
‘Back to status quo’
Melanie Dubis, attorney for the Leandro plaintiffs who challenged the legislature’s limits on pre-K, said Friday’s ruling is “yet another unanimous ruling that those mandates that every child, including prospective enrollees, is entitled to the opportunity for a sound basic education. ... With respect to the particular piece of legislation and the impact on the program, I think we’re sort of back to status quo.”
The unanswered question is whether the state will expand its pre-K program to serve all children who qualify. Currently, 26,700 children are enrolled, down from 32,000 in 2010-11.
According to one estimate, about 67,000 4-year-olds would be eligible annually, which could cost the state about $300 million.
Susan Perry-Manning, executive director of the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation, said the positive impact of pre-K is clear.
“Decades of research show that children who attend high-quality early learning programs perform better in school, have higher graduation rates, have higher earnings, pay more taxes and are less likely to rely on government assistance,” she said in a statement. “The courts may have come to a legal decision, but it is up to our state to choose its future.”