Raleigh, N.C. — The North Carolina Supreme Court has vacated lower-court rulings calling barriers to access the state's pre-kindergarten program unconstitutional, saying lawmakers have since eliminated those barriers.
In a six-page decision that comes just three weeks after the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case, the justices ruled Friday that the appeal in the case was moot.
Superior Court Judge Howard Manning, who has handled school funding cases for years, ruled in 2011 that the state couldn't restrict access to NC Pre-K. The state Court of Appeals upheld that decision last year.
NC Pre-K enrolled about 25,000 children in 2012, down from about 35,000 in 2010 after lawmakers cut its funding by 20 percent and imposed other restrictions, such as requiring parents to make a co-payment for enrolling.
Lawmakers removed the co-pay and eliminated an enrollment cap last year to address Manning's concerns. The Supreme Court cited those changes in determining "the questions originally in controversy between the parties are no longer at issue and that this appeal is moot."
The court sent the case back to the Court of Appeals to vacate Manning's original order.
“Today’s Supreme Court decision is 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," Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said in a statement. "The court’s ruling ensures the Pre-K program will move forward as the legislature intended – with eight out of 10 Pre-K slots serving children who are financially at-risk."
"The 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," House Speaker Thom Tillis said in a statement.
Education advocates argued that state officials made a promise nine years ago as part of a long-running school finance lawsuit to provide pre-kindergarten classes to at-risk students statewide. Attorneys for the state maintained, however, that there is no constitutional right to pre-kindergarten and that the state only had a goal of providing as much access as possible.
State Rep. Rick Glazier, who has worked on the school finance lawsuit, said Friday's ruling doesn't affect eligibility for Pre-K or the state's constitutional duty to offer classes to needy 4-year-olds.
“This simply deals with the fact the legislature in 2012 undid the controversial statute in which they limited funding and restricted eligibility for Pre-K,” said Glazier, D-Cumberland. “It doesn’t affect the initial larger question ... our mandate still stands."
Requiring the state to open up its pre-kindergarten program to every needy 4-year-old who applies could have cost the state $300 million a year, according to some estimates, which is more than double what the state now spends on it.