Republican leaders were quick to take issue today with a ruling by Judge Howard Manning that their budget is unconstitutional in its funding for education - specifically, for preschool education in More at Four and Smart Start.
House Speaker Thom Tillis issued the following statement:
“I am disappointed in today’s order from Judge Manning,” said House Speaker Thom Tillis. “The Court’s ruling is unclear in key places and may be incorrect as a matter of law.”
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. It addresses the student mix of the exemplary More at Four program. After consulting with the non-partisan Fiscal Research Division, it is clear that there was no intent to limit the program to only 20% at-risk students as defined by income. “One thing is perfectly clear from our review of the matter, today’s order should have no impact on the state budget,” said Tillis.
And this came in from Senate Leader Phil Berger:
“We disagree with Judge Manning’s interpretation, and we are confident his opinion does not throw the state budget out of balance,” Berger said. “The budget does not cap the number of low-income students eligible for the program. In fact, the 20 percent cap exists, and has for several years, specifically to ensure at least 80 percent of the children enrolled are financially disadvantaged.”
There are numerous questions surrounding Manning’s decision that need to be clarified. The General Assembly’s fiscal research staff is continuing to study the issue."
Berger believes Manning's ruling avoids the issue of funding altogether, concentrating on the question of how many children in a state prekindergarten classroom should be "at-risk," and who qualifies as "at-risk."
Berger says pre-K deals with two types of "at-risk" students - those from low-income families, and those with other challenges, like learning disabilities or limited English proficiency, but whose families may not be poor. He says a law predating the budget limits the number of students from the latter category to 20% of any classroom.
"The question I have is, I'm not sure specifically what it is that he's ordering," Berger said. "Is there something in the order that will require the expenditure of additional money? He's not talking about funding levels at all."
But Manning's ruling does address the issue of co-payments. The new budget allows state prekindergarten programs to charge families up to 10% of their income for educational and child care services. That's a first for North Carolina, and Manning's ruling says it can't be imposed if it keeps eligible students out of the classroom:
"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."
House Republican counsel Jason Kay said the state budget didn't anticipate any revenues coming in from the co-payments, so it won't throw the budget out of balance.
But the ruling will likely hit home at the local level, where providers were given the power to charge the co-payments as a way to make up for receiving less funding from the state.
WIthout the co-pays, local providers may have to cut the number of prekindergarten seats they can offer. And Manning's ruling makes it clear the number of seats in the state program is already too low, offering pre-K to only about half the eligible four year olds in the state.
"The amount appropriated for More At Four has always been less than the number of kids eligible," Berger responded.
"I'm not at a point where it appears to me that this is something we would need to address from a legislative standpoint," Berger said. "I'm not sure that's the case."
"We're gonna need some clarification," he added. "That's the one thing everyone agrees on."