Raleigh, N.C. — Attorneys representing North Carolina argued Tuesday that the state has no obligation to provide early childhood education to every child who could benefit from such classes.
Lawmakers last year imposed enrollment caps and required co-payments of up to 10 percent of a family's income for children enrolled in North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten, a program for at-risk 4-year-olds.
Superior Court Judge Howard Manning, who has handled several school equity lawsuits in recent years, ruled that the changes violated the state's constitutional duty to give every child a chance at a sound, basic education. Manning ordered that the state must admit any eligible 4-year-old to the program, which officials estimated could expand enrollment to 67,000 and cost the state an extra $300 million a year.
N.C. Pre-K had 24,000 students last year and about 35,000 the year before.
"There is no separate constitutional requirement to provide pre-K services," Solicitor General John Maddrey told a three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeals on Tuesday.
Maddrey said that a 2004 state Supreme Court ruling on public education obligated the state to provide pre-kindergarten classes only in Hoke County, arguing that Manning overstepped his authority by extending that ruling statewide.
Former Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr wrote that unanimous 2004 opinion, and he argued against the state Tuesday while representing the North Carolina School Boards Association.
"There can be no question that a statewide response – a state responsibility to address and fulfill that opportunity – is a necessity," Orr said.
Maddrey maintained that North Carolina undertook a statewide pre-kindergarten program in recent years by choice, not because of a court-ordered mandate.
"It was a long-range goal. That's what the plan said it was. Over time, it became the practice of the state," he said.
The appellate judges usually take about three months before issuing a ruling.
Hours before the Court of Appeals heard the lawsuit, lawmakers pulled back from some of the limits they placed on N.C. Pre-K last year, which prompted the legal challenge.
Legislative leaders said the language they approved last year, which appeared to limit the number of students allowed per classroom, didn't convey their actual intent. So, both the House and Senate quickly passed House Bill 966, which they said fixes the problem.
The bill, which now goes to Gov. Beverly Perdue's desk, defines what risk factors, including income, make a child eligible for N.C. Pre-K and outlines how many seats must be reserved for children from low-income families.
Under the legislation, at least 80 percent of the seats in the program must be set aside for children whose family income is less than 75 percent of the state median income. Up to 20 percent of students could exceed that income restriction if they present other at-risk factors, including having an active-duty military parent.
Under current state guidelines, a 4-year-old is considered "at risk" if the family makes less than $51,000 a year. The state Division of Child Development and Early Education would be charged with setting the precise dollar amounts for income eligibility requirements.