RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina's effort to prepare all 4-year-olds to compete in school is readying for what may be thousands of newcomers and a potential problem paying for a program legislative Republicans wanted to cut by 20 percent.
Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr. ruled last month that there are about twice as many eligible at-risk 4-year-olds than were served last year, and none can be turned away. The judge overseeing a long-running education lawsuit ordered that any barrier to enrolling at-risk children "may not be enforced."
The Department of Health and Human Services is responding to the ruling by telling local agencies administering the newly revamped North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten program to accept all comers, though no one knows the potential cost. The agency also told providers not to begin collecting a co-payment of up to 10 percent of parents' income. The money was supposed to offset some of the lost taxpayer funding.
"Judge Manning says that the state is going to have to fund this, so I do not know how that's going to happen," Smart Start of Mecklenburg County executive director Jane Meyer said Wednesday.
Meyer co-chairs a local committee that allocates resources for Mecklenburg County's public pre-kindergarten program. The committee last week decided that state budget cuts meant it would have to cut slots for 212 children while also trimming payments to child care centers, a decision Meyer said will now be revisited.
The department's Division of Child Development and Early Education said in a letter last week it "is currently evaluating the potential demand of services and the associated cost for serving all at-risk eligible 4-year-olds with the same high-quality program standards that have existed."
In another letter to providers this week, the division said one struggle in the weeks ahead is finding enough classroom slots taught by licensed teachers. Local agencies were told to use the money already budgeted to them, then state officials would take stock of any additional demand and figure out how to fill that need.
"This will be a process that could span several months," the letter said.
The General Assembly's fiscal analysts were still working on an estimate of the cost of educating all eligible 4-year-olds and don't know how many additional children would appear, principal fiscal analyst Lisa Hollowell said.
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. News of the agency's moves riled Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, who said DHHS risked spending money the state does not have.
"We absolutely disagree with the governor's interpretation of this order and have received nothing from her or the DHHS secretary on this matter," he said in a statement. Gov. Beverly Perdue agrees with Manning that every eligible child should have access to quality academic programs and lawmakers haven't addressed how every child would be served.
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 a program called More At Four as satisfying the court's demands.
More At Four defined those at risk and 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.
More At Four served about 32,000 children during the last academic year, but Manning estimated there are up to 67,000 eligible at-risk 4-year-olds.
The state budget that took effect this month cuts funding for the program renamed NC Pre-Kindergarten and shifted it from the state's education agency to the DHHS child development division, which also runs a voucher program that helps workers and students pay child care costs.
Private child care center operators are still in the dark about whether the state agency's direction to enroll every eligible child will be paid by cutting rates paid to them, said Kevin Campbell, president and owner of Smart Kids' Child Development Centers in the Charlotte area.
"I think it's very much up in the air," said Campbell, who faced a rate cut totaling $16,000 for the more than 70 children taught in two of his centers.