Judge Howard Manning ruled today state lawmakers' budget proposal does not meet the constitutional requirement to provide a sound, basic education to the state's low-income preschoolers. It appears likely they'll have to revisit to the budget to find more money for pre-kindergarten programs for at-risk children.
State lawmakers facing a record $2.5 billion budget shortfall cut funding for both More at Four and Smart Start this year by about 20%. (More at Four is the actual pre-K program, but Smart Start services also contribute to it.)
Under the new budget that took effect July 1st, most parents of children in the pre-K program would have to pay something for the classes. Fees would be set on a sliding scale based on family income.
Judge Manning, best known for his rulings in the Leandro case, which also addressed educational opportunity for low-income students, ruled today that the state constitution won't let lawmakers do that:
"...The imposition of a co-pay requirement may not be used to block an at-risk four year old from taking advantage of the NCPK [NC pre kindergarten] program when he or she is eligible to be provided the prekindergarten experience."
You can read Manning's full ruling here.
The cuts made in More at Four amount to about $16 million, and Smart Start was cut by about $37 million, though it's unclear what proportion of the Smart Start cut might need to be reconsidered under Manning's ruling.
Senate Education chairman Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, expects the pricetag on Manning's ruling will exceed $40 million. He's not sure where the state will find it. "In a year of plenty, that may not be a big figure. But this year, that’s a big figure," Tillman said.
"We would love to fully comply," Tillman continued. "However, everything costs. The question is, do taxpayers foot the bill, or should parents take a part in paying part of it?"
"We’ll go back to the drawing board and see what we can do. There’s so many unknowns," Tillman said. "And I'm sure before school starts, in the interim, we’ll be looking for a way to comply and a way to pay for it."
On the other side of the aisle, House Minority Leader Joe Hackney was quick to issue the following statement:
"Judge Manning ruled that Republicans cannot use their budget to deny pre-kindergarten services to at-risk children. Those of us in the minority who voted against this budget and stood up for education applaud this decision. We warned the majority loudly and often that their plan would take North Carolina backwards. We are seeing that now with thousands of children losing opportunities for education. Thousands of teaching jobs are being eliminated, and financial aid will be denied to 6,000 eligible college students this coming year. Judge Manning’s order may at least help correct one of the many poor decisions to come out of this ill-conceived budget."
UPDATE: Republican leaders insist the ruling won't cost the state anything, because the co-payments the budget requires don't figure into the state budget - they go to local pre-K programs instead. More on that here.