Budget writer defends changes to NC pre-K program

Posted July 20, 2011 2:11 p.m. EDT
Updated July 20, 2011 6:47 p.m. EDT

— A lawmaker responsible for adding a co-payment for a pre-kindergarten program for at-risk children as part of the new state budget defended the requirement Wednesday, two days after a judge found the measure would deny many poor children access to the service.

Superior Court Judge Howard Manning ruled Monday that changes to what used to be called the More at Four program would limit enrollment in the service and violate a landmark state Supreme Court ruling, the so-called Leandro II ruling, that every child has a constitutional right to an equal education.

The $19.7 billion state budget that took effect this month cuts funding to More at Four by 20 percent and requires parents to pay up to 10 percent of their income to participate.

Manning said that the new program, called NC Pre-Kindergarten, also limits the number of spots for at-risk children to 20 percent.

Gov. Bev Perdue responded to the ruling Monday, urging lawmakers to take swift action to ensure no at-risk student is left out.

But Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, who wrote that part of the budget, says the program doesn't limit students but helps with necessary budget cuts while opening the program to more children

"One hundred percent of the funds for the pre-K program are going to be for at-risk children," Burr said.

"We've tried to take those cuts that were made in previous years and reductions that we had to make as well and make improvements to those programs so that we can serve more kids, so that more kids can be a part of these programs," he added.

Burr says the co-pay would be waived for 20 percent of students but that no student would be turned away.

"I think we've got to educate Judge Manning and Gov. Perdue on exactly what the legislation says," he said. "It just seems to be another way that the other side is trying to block our efforts to move early education in a new direction that we believe is an improvement."

It's unclear whether Manning's order could force the Republican-controlled legislature to redo part of the state budget.

Republican leaders have said that they don't believe it will have an impact and that implementing the order would require pulling money from other educational programs.

Manning has said only that he is confident the state will live up to its constitutional duties to afford every child a good, basic education.

Robert Orr, the former Supreme Court justice who wrote the Leandro II ruling, says the court clearly defined the role of pre-kindergarten programs when it comes to the constitutional right for a sound, basic education.

He says the court clearly defined the role of pre-kindergarten programs when it comes to the constitutional right for a sound, basic education.

"All of these at-risk kids need to at least have this opportunity to attend a pre-K program," Orr said. "If this particular law does, in fact, violate the constitution, then it cannot be enforced."