Raleigh, N.C. — Former Gov. Mike Easley, who created the More at Four early childhood education program more than a decade ago, has jumped into the legal battle over access to pre-kindergarten programs in North Carolina.
The North Carolina Supreme Court could hear the case as early as October, and Easley filed a brief Wednesday in support of wider access.
"These children, their young minds are perishable commodities," Easley said Thursday.
Two years ago, Manning threw out legislative changes to the early childhood education program that limited access and required parents to pick up part of the cost. He ruled that North Carolina has a constitutional duty to provide pre-kindergarten to at-risk 4-year-olds.
Lawmakers later dropped those limitations, but as part of this year's budget, they changed the definition of "at-risk" to reduce by half the number of children who would qualify for NC Pre-K, the state-run pre-kindergarten program that Republican lawmakers created to replace More at Four and the Smart Start program.
Easley said the state needs to invest more in early childhood education, not find ways to cut funding.
"You can't just put them on the shelf for two years and wait for better economic times. You've got to find the money and do what the constitution says," he said.
Attorney General Roy Cooper, whose office will defend the legislative position in the case, said he supports more resources for early childhood education. Still, his office has been defending so-called "Leandro" cases challenging school spending and educational equality cases for about 20 years.
Easley said he believes he can add some historical context to the debate for the Supreme Court.
"As governor, I formed a tremendous passion for education," he said. "It makes sense, in a way, that I would be involved in (the case). As a matter of fact, to me, it would not make sense if I wouldn't get involved."
He said he believes the nation is watching North Carolina closely for the outcome of the case.
"Those days are gone when you could educate part of the workforce and kind of leave the rest in tow," he said. "Everybody has to be educated for your state and country to compete."