Judge rules state’s More-At-Four cut unconstitutional

Published 9:11 am Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Wake County Superior Court judge ruled on Monday, July 18 that North Carolina cannot deny at-risk students access to prekindergarten programs.
Judge Howard E. Manning ruled against the state’s recently approved budget, which moved the More-At-Four program out of the department of public instruction into the state’s department of health and human services (DHHS), while also making funding cuts.
More-At-Four helped low-income working families send children to prekindergarten at no cost. The More-At-Four program no longer exists, although some funding is available through DHHS for the same category of students.
The new budget, which took effect July 1, includes a 20-percent cut to More-At-Four, the imposition of fees amounting to between eight and 10 percent of the gross income of impoverished residents to attend preschool and a limitation on slots in the program to 20 percent of at-risk students.
Limiting the program to 20 percent would prevent 80 percent of at-risk students from participating in preschool, according to the N.C. Department of Justice.
Polk County Schools Supt. Bill Miller said the DHHS has some funding to give to the preschool program in the new budget, but it is not clear how much will be allotted to Polk yet. School administrators said they do know the funding will be less than last year.
The Polk County Board of Commissioners placed in this year’s budget an additional $100,000 for its school system to ensure the prekindergarten program remains intact this year.
“The good news for Polk County is because of what commissioners have done, we are going to keep providing preschool in Polk County,” said Miller.
School administrators question, however, whether the funding for preschool will be available in the future.
Transylvania County had to stop providing its preschool program because of the cuts in the state budget.
It is unclear what Judge Manning’s ruling will mean for the state. Legislators could fight the ruling in court or have a special session to discuss what can be done.
Manning, a judge well-known for fighting for equality in North Carolina schools for low-income residents, has been fighting the state for about a decade. Mannaing was the judge in the original Leandro case, in which several North Carolina counties sued the state, saying state mandates resulted in unequal education for students. They said not providing equal education to all students is against the N.C. Constitution.
Judge Manning’s ruling this week is based on the same part of the constitution, which says North Carolina citizens are responsible for providing sound, basic education for all North Carolina children.
In a press release sent this week, N.C. Justice Center officials said they applaud Manning’s decision and his commitment to providing all children the constitutionally guaranteed opportunity for a sound, basic education.
“This case has always been about the rights of children,” Judge Manning wrote. “Each at-risk 4-year-old that appears at the doors of the NCPK [NC Pre-Kindergarten Program] this fall is a defenseless, fragile child whose background of poverty or disability places the child at-risk of subsequent academic failure. The fact that these small children are at-risk is not their fault and they may not be denied their constitutional right to the opportunity to obtain a sound basic education by adults.”
N.C. Education and Law Project Director Chris Hill said that Judge Manning’s order demonstrates that the state’s at-risk pre-schoolers are, “more than just lines in a ledger sheet.”
“They deserve better than harsh cuts and an uncertain future,” said Hill.

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