Ruling that the state of North Carolina cannot deny “at-risk” children access to its prekindergarten program, Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning held on July 18 that the state of North Carolina cannot enforce the portion of the 2011 Budget Bill that limits admission of at-risk four-year-olds to the state’s prekindergarten program, formerly known as More-At-Four and now known as the North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten Program. See Hoke County Board of Education v. North Carolina.
The new budget, which began July 1, capped enrollment for at-risk children participating in the prekindergarten program at 20%, stipulated that families who are not “at risk” be charged co-payments, and cut the program’s budget by $32 million. In addition, the budget moved the More-At-Four Program from the department of public instruction into the state’s department of health and human services.
Judge Manning had previously held that in order to avail themselves of their constitutional right to the opportunity to obtain a sound basic education, at-risk students had a right to obtain pre-school educational services. In a 2004 ruling, the state Supreme Court upheld Judge Manning’s constitutional interpretation, but at the same time it also held that the state had the discretion to determine the type of services children would receive to prepare them for school entry. Since that time, the state has chosen the More-At-Four-Program as its prime vehicle for meeting this constitutional obligation.
The More-At-Four Program was a state-funded program that was designed to enhance kindergarten readiness for lower income students. Eligibility for the program was decided upon by income level, low English proficiency, disability, chronic health conditions, and educational or developmental needs. Last year, about 35,000 students attended the program. The Court cited a recent evaluation study that found a direct positive correlation between participation in the program and children’s language/literacy and mathematics skills at kindergarten entry, and their third grading reading and math scores.
Judge Manning held that:
While the General Assembly has the constitutional power and authority to transfer the MAF prekindergarten program for at-risk 4 year olds to DHHS… the underlying high quality prekindergarten program many not be dismantled, nor may the prekindergarten services provided to at-risk 4 year olds throughout North Carolina be reduced, diminished in quality or eligibility for the prekindergarten program be restricted by the erection of artificial or actual barriers enacted into law.
The Court specifically invalided the 20% cap restriction and further held that:
The State of North Carolina shall not deny any eligible at-risk four year old admission to the North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten Program ( NCPK) and shall provide the quality services of the NCPK to any eligible at-risk four year old that applies.
Republican legislators said that Judge Manning misinterpreted the legislative intent. Senate leader Phil Berger insisted that the legislative intent was not to limit the program to 20 percent of at-risk participants, although he acknowledged that “that is a poorly worded provision in the budget.” Democratic legislators appeared to welcome the ruling, and Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue, who had vetoed the legislative budget, but whose veto had been overridden, said it is time for lawmakers to start over.
“This ruling is broader than most people think it is,” says Melanie Dubis, attorney both for the Leandro plaintiffs and Judge Manning’s recent ruling. Ms. Dubis “hope[s] that this is only the beginning of a conversation of providing comprehensive educational services to at-risk student at all levels.”