NC judge denies GOP motion on pre-kindergarten

Posted September 6, 2011 3:40 p.m. EDT
Updated September 6, 2011 6:16 p.m. EDT

— A Superior Court judge will not rethink his decision to order North Carolina to provide pre-kindergarten education to all at-risk 4-year-olds, and has told Republican legislative leaders they don't have the standing to intervene in the case.

Wake County Judge Howard Manning affirmed in a ruling released Friday his decision in July to strike down a portion of the state budget that would limit the number of 4-year-olds in need who could enroll in pre-k programs, ruling that the state constitution requires the state to provide a quality education to all children.

"The court remains confident that the state of North Carolina will discharge its constitutional duties to the children of North Carolina, including 'at-risk' prospective enrollees, so that each child may have the equal opportunity to obtain a sound basic education" as required by law, Manning wrote.

The ruling is a setback for the Republican leadership of the General Assembly, which argues Manning's July ruling will blow a hole in the budget. The state Attorney General's Office is appealing the earlier ruling at the behest of legislative leaders.

"North Carolina's Constitution gives the legislature the authority to set education policy, but Judge Manning is clearly determined to create a massive new welfare program from the bench," Republican Senate Leader Phil Berger said in a statement Tuesday.

Berger, along with House Speaker Thom Tillis, had sought to be allowed to intervene in the case in their capacities as legislative leaders. They also asked Manning to "clarify" the intent of the General Assembly in setting a 20 percent cap on the number of at-risk 4-year-olds who could be served by pre-kindergarten programs.

"Our state’s highest court has previously overturned the activist view that North Carolina was compelled to add another grade to our public school system without the input of the people’s elected representatives," Tillis said in a statement. "We look forward to a higher court reaffirming what appeared to be a matter that was settled in 2004.”

The lawmakers contended that the language of the budget law was "admittedly imprecise," but that the General Assembly intended to limit enrollment concerning only those students defined as "at-risk" for reasons other than financial hardship, such as chronic health problems.

"This court is not authorized to enter an order essentially revising an act of the General Assembly," Manning wrote in rejecting the motion.

Manning also denied a request by the Republican leaders to clarify that the state Constitution doesn't require a new pre-kindergarten program in order to serve all at-risk children in the state. Manning wrote that the state's obligations under the constitution are already clear, and that "Pre-k is a proper way to address the state's obligation to 'at-risk' prospective enrollees so that they can be prepared to enter kindergarten with the opportunity to obtain a sound basic education" as required by the constitution.

Gov. Beverly Perdue said Tuesday that the Department of Health and Human Services is already drawing up a plan to comply with Manning's July 18 order, although the plan will likely be delayed by a lack of resources.

The Democratic governor had responded to Manning's order by directing state agencies to admit all children who qualify, which could mean doubling the reach of a program that last year served about 32,000 4-year-olds. That could cost the state between $145 million and $360 million, depending on how many additional children are served and how much local governments need to spend, according to nonpartisan legislative fiscal analysts.