RALEIGH, N.C. — Gov. Beverly Perdue waded into a long-running battle over education funding Wednesday by ordering a state agency to accept all eligible 4-year-olds into a kindergarten prep program and without easing previous academic standards.
Perdue said she was acting in line with a judge's order last month that the state is required to serve any 4-year-old deemed at risk of falling behind their peers. But like Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr.'s ruling, the Democratic governor's executive order did not specify how the state would pay for a potential flood of thousands of children. That could increase the pressure on a Republican Legislature that decided to cut funding for the revamped program by 20 percent and charge parents a co-payment of up to 10 percent of their income.
Perdue ordered her Department of Health and Human Services to offer pre-kindergarten education to all eligible 4-year-olds while maintaining standards for teachers and academic goals that were part of the program previously called More At Four. The state budget transferred the program from the state's education agency to DHHS and renamed it North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten.
The Associated Press reported last week that DHHS was already issuing similar instructions to local agencies administering the program.
More At Four last year served about 32,000 4-year-olds at risk of falling behind their peers, but a recent DHHS survey found there may be nearly twice that number of children eligible.
"If the funds that the General Assembly has provided are insufficient to cover the constitutional mandate for these services, I will call upon the legislature to appropriate additional funds to meet our obligation," Perdue said in a prepared statement. "However, if additional funds become necessary for NC Pre-K, the General Assembly must not inflict further cuts on other educational programs."
North Carolina officials have been under court pressure since a landmark 1997 state Supreme Court decision to improve student performance, and to prepare 4-year-olds at risk of falling behind their peers. Since 2002, the state has pointed to More At Four as satisfying the court's demands.
More At Four defined those at risk as children whose families earn below the statewide average, or those who have disabilities or chronic health problems, come from families that don't speak English at home or have parents on active military duty.
Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said last week that the state health agency's instructions to accept all eligible comers risked spending money the state does not have. Leaders of the Republican-led Legislature had said after Manning's ruling they didn't expect it would force them to rewrite parts of the $19.7 billion state budget.
A key House budget-writer said Wednesday Republicans disputed both Manning's ruling and Perdue's authority to upset the spending plan's careful balance with her executive order. Legislative attorneys will look into whether a legal challenge to Perdue would be justified, said Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly.
"It seems like she's trying to create a line-item veto where she can pick and choose what she wants," Burr said.