RALEIGH — A North Carolina appeals court ruled Tuesday that any at-risk child whose parents seek admission to the state’s pre-kindergarten academic enrichment program must be admitted, but judges stopped short of requiring a vast expansion of the program to include every needy 4-year-old.
The unanimous three-judge panel of the N.C. Court of Appeals upheld Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr., who ruled last summer that legislative changes to a state program designed to help disadvantaged 4-year-olds gear up for school would deprive most from benefiting.
“The trial court acted within its authority to mandate the unrestricted acceptance of all “at-risk” four-year-old prospective enrollees who seek to enroll in existing pre-kindergarten programs across the state,” Appeals Court Judge Rick Elmore wrote.
The changes written by Republican lawmakers leading the General Assembly for the first time in over a century meant the state was abandoning its constitutional duty to give every child a chance at a sound, basic education. The state Supreme Court selected Manning to oversee compliance with the court’s earlier rulings that found state officials had deprived poor children an equal shot at the education guaranteed by the North Carolina constitution.
Attorneys representing the GOP-led Legislature’s decision argued that Manning had gone too far when he slapped down those legislative changes and ordered that no eligible 4-year-old can be turned away from the program. Lawyers for five poor counties, the State Board of Education, and the North Carolina School Boards Association had argued the appeals court should uphold Manning’s ruling.
The appeals court ruled that while eligible 4-year-olds can’t be turned away from admission, Manning “did not order the state to provide pre-kindergarten programs for all “at-risk” four-year-old prospective enrollees,” Elmore wrote. Instead, the state could not establish barriers that would deny an eligible “child admission to an existing pre-kindergarten program in his or her county,” the appeals court said.
Manning said the Legislature effectively limited the eight-year-old program renamed North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten by restricting the number of slots for 4-year-olds at risk of falling behind their peers due to chronic health problems, or because their families were in financial hardship or did not speak English at home.
The program, previously called More at Four, was enacted after the state Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that North Carolina’s constitutional guarantees of a right to a sound, basic education include providing pre-kindergarten services for children who are at risk of falling behind their peers.
NC Pre-K enrolled about 24,000 children in the just-completed school year, down from about 35,000 in 2010 after lawmakers cut its funding by 20 percent and imposed other restrictions. Expanding the program to all 67,000 children who may be eligible could cost taxpayers up to $300 million a year, according to estimates from Gov. Bev Perdue’s administration.
Spokesmen for N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, and Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said the legislative leaders plan to appeal the decision to the state’s Supreme Court. The high court can decide whether or not it will consider the case.
“Our children’s ability to find a job later in life is tied directly to their educational opportunities, and quality pre-kindergarten programs lay the foundation for academic success,” Perdue said in a statement. “We need to come together on a bipartisan basis and recommit ourselves to early childhood education.”