RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina cannot limit enrollment in a pre-kindergarten program for at-risk children that saw its budget reduced by the General Assembly, the judge overseeing a long-running education-opportunity lawsuit ordered Monday.
It's not clear whether the order by Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr. could force the Legislature to redo part of the $19.7 billion state budget that took effect this month. Manning said only that he is confident the state will live up to its constitutional duties to afford every child a good, basic education.
"This is not advisory. It is an order," said Melanie Dubis, an attorney for the five poor school districts involved in the lawsuit. "The overall education budget is not sufficient to meet all of the requirements" laid down by the state Supreme Court.
Gov. Bev Perdue, who saw the budget become law after her veto was overridden, called on lawmakers to rework their spending plan in time for the coming school year. The Legislature reconvenes next week for a session primarily dedicated to redistricting.
"The legislature must provide the at-risk children of North Carolina with the educational programs that will ensure they get off to the right start — and give them a real chance at success," Perdue, a Democrat, said in a statement Monday afternoon.
Republican legislative leaders, who were reviewing Manning's order, said they do not think it will have any impact on the GOP-written budget.
"While it is uncertain whether or not the court’s decision will ultimately be allowed to stand, the budget provision addressed by the court has nothing to do with funding," House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said in a statement.
Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, said Manning failed to note in his ruling that the state budget placed 1,000 more teachers into classrooms around the state. Implementing Manning's order would require pulling money from other educational programs, he said.
Lawyers for low-wealth school districts in Hoke, Robeson, Vance, Halifax and Cumberland counties argued that the state budget undercuts gains made since a landmark 1997 Supreme Court decision. The ruling in the Leandro case, named for one of its plaintiffs, said every child has a constitutional right to an education that allows them to compete for a job or higher education and to be a functional citizen.
Since then, state officials have been under court pressure to improve literacy and other measures of student performance, and to prepare 4-year-olds at risk of falling behind their peers before they enter kindergarten. The state since 2002 has pointed to a program called More At Four as satisfying the court's demands.
More At Four defined at-risk children as those whose families earn below the statewide average, who have a disability or chronic health problem, come from a family that doesn't speak English at home, or have parents on active military duty.
The state budget that took effect this month cuts funding by 20 percent and requires parents to pay up to 10 percent of their income to participate.
"It is heartbreaking for me to say, 'There is nothing we can do to help you without this funding," said Nedra Wicker, executive director of A Safe Place Childcare in Raleigh.
The budget also shifts the program from the state's education agency to the Department of Health and Human Services division that runs a voucher program that helps workers and students pay childcare costs.
The new program, called NC Pre-Kindergarten, also limits the number of spots for at-risk youngsters to 20 percent, Manning said. Any barrier to enrolling at-risk 4-year-olds "may not be enforced," Manning said.
"This could change everything," Wicker said.
"If the present plan is implemented as set out in the budget bill, several thousand at-risk four-year-olds who are eligible to attend NCPK will not be provided with slots because of the limitations on their participation to 20 percent," Manning wrote.
Estimates are that there are up to 67,000 eligible at-risk 4-year-olds in North Carolina, Manning said.
More At Four served about 32,000 children during the last academic year, but limiting the slots for at-risk children means only 6,400 of the children More At Four was created to help will get it under the state budget, Manning said.
"This result is unacceptable and may not occur as the at-risk four-year-olds are to be provided a high-quality pre-kindergarten in order that they may be able to enter the public schools with sufficient skills and development," Manning said.
Stephanie Fanjul, president of the North Carolina Partnership for Children, called the news of Manning's ruling "incredible."
"For every child in the state, it is their constitutional right to have access to early education," Fanjul said.