It was an odd parallel and somewhat amusing to see N.C. lawmakers moving this week to reject imprudent changes they made last year in the states pre-kindergarten program while nearby an N.C. court was hearing arguments challenging the legality of those changes.
As curious was the fact that one of the lawyers arguing against the pre-K changes pushed through by Republicans in the GOP-dominated legislature last year is a prominent Republican, as is the judge who declared the changes a violation of the states constitution. Add to that, the N.C. Board of Education broke ranks with the state to oppose the changes.
The state school board is represented by that Republican lawyer, former state Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, who while a high-court justice wrote one of the opinions in the landmark school-quality case that led to a state pre-kindergarten program. The judge overseeing the states compliance with the high-court ruling is Wake County Superior Judge Howard Manning, who slammed the changes and said they violated the rulings and directives in the Leandro school-quality case.
Last July, Manning ordered lawmakers to halt budgetary changes to the prekindergarten program. The legislatures $19.7 billion budget had cut funding for pre-K by 20 percent and charged co-payments to the parents of children who attend. The judge said those changes denied eligible at-risk four-year-olds access to the sound, basic education that the states constitution entitles them. Lawmakers also capped participation in the program by severely limiting the number of pre-kindergarten slots available to at-risk four-year-olds.
Responding to Manning, GOP leaders claimed the issue was a semantical misunderstanding. Even this week as they rewrote the bill, passed it and sent it to Gov. Bev Perdue for her signature, they clung to that position, calling the cap unintended and the provision poorly written. Tuesdays legislative action was meant to correct the language, they said.
Yet, in laying out the case defending the changes, Solicitor General John Maddrey argued something else that there is no constitutional right to pre-kindergarten (though that was clearly a huge part of the plan the state devised for fulfilling its constitutional obligations after it lost the Leandro case) and that Manning has no authority to order lawmakers to provide it.
Interestingly, Maddrey said the state does not argue against the value of pre-K education: As a matter of policy, prekindergarten to prospective enrollees is a wonderful thing, he said. It may be the most cost-effective thing we can do.
But, he said, that is a policy issue for the legislative and executive branch to decide, not the courts.
So, what should the courts do if the state agrees to provide pre-K as part of the settlement of a lawsuit and fulfillment of its constitutional obligations for a sound, basic education to all children, and then reneges on doing so? Do Maddrey and state lawmakers really believe the state gets to walk away from that obligation in tough budget times?
Melanie Dubis, attorney for the poor counties in Leandro (Mecklenburg is one of the urban counties that later joined the suit), is on point when she said those arguments make a mockery of the judicial proceedings in this case and should be rejected by this court.
Lawmakers were right to reverse course this week, and undo much of what they did last summer. Their change of heart is welcome even if it came after a big prod.
Nonetheless I hope the three-judge panel hearing arguments this week issues a ruling affirming Mannings orders. N.C.s pre-K program has been nationally praised. The latest came earlier this year in a report by Rutgers Universitys National Institute for Early Education Research. It gave the state plaudits for being one of just five states meeting all the benchmarks for a quality, cost-effective program.
But that praise was for last years program before lawmakers cut funding and student participation. Clearly, N.C. legislators cant always be trusted to see the value of pre-kindergarten and act in ways that show they do.