RALEIGH, N.C. — The North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled unanimously Tuesday to uphold a lower court decision that says the state cannot deny at-risk children admission to public pre-kindergarten programs.
Legislative leaders said they plan to appeal the decision to the North Carolina Supreme Court, so it's doubtful any changes would take effect this year.
Superior Court Judge Howard Manning last year threw out legislative changes to the early childhood education program that limited access and required parents to pick up part of the cost. He ruled that North Carolina has a constitutional duty to provide pre-kindergarten to at-risk 4-year-olds.
Lawmakers dropped those limitations this year, but Republican leaders still fought Manning's ruling, which could cost North Carolina $300 million a year.
"We know that pre-K has long-lasting positive impacts on children, on their families and really makes it more likely they'll be successful in life," said Rob Thompson, executive director of advocacy group Covenant with North Carolina's Children.
"Instead of trying to figure out ways to get around the ruling, let's try and figure out how to get these kids the highest-quality education," Thompson said. "It's a matter of figuring out where the revenue is going to come from."
The state defines 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.
Officials have estimated that 67,000 children would qualify for pre-kindergarten statewide, but only 26,000 of them are now enrolled.
"A child born today only has 2,000 days before he or she begins kindergarten. That child’s quality of life and the contributions he or she will make to society can be directly traced to these first few years of life," said Dr. Olson Huff, state chairman of North Carolina Partnership for Children, which oversees the Smart Start early childhood program. "The North Carolina Court of Appeals’ decision today reaffirms that every child has the right to the opportunity to succeed."
Appeals Court Judge Rick Elmore wrote in the 21-page ruling that state attorneys misinterpreted Manning's order to mean legislators must provide pre-kindergarten to all at-risk 4-year-olds in North Carolina. Elmore said the order was about eliminating artificial barriers to enter the program.
Gov. Beverly Perdue and top Democratic lawmakers lauded the court ruling, saying that educational opportunities affect a child's lot later in life.
"(The) unanimous decision provides both a boost for struggling families and hope for every child across our state," Perdue said in a statement. "We need to come together on a bipartisan basis and recommit ourselves to early childhood education.”
"Republicans inexplicably continue to erect artificial barriers to keep at-risk children out of quality pre-kindergarten programs, even in the face of two court rulings telling them they are violating the constitution," Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt and House Minority Leader Joe Hackney said in a statement. "(We) look forward to a resolution that will give more of our preschoolers a chance to succeed in school."