Republican N.C. legislators lost, again, in court on Tuesday. They should take the hint and stop trying to deny at-risk kids access to pre-kindergarten classes.
A three-judge panel of the N.C. Court of Appeals unanimously upheld Judge Howard Manning, who ruled last year that the state could not deny eligible at-risk 4-year-olds admission to the state’s pre-K program. The appellate opinion was written by Judge Rick Elmore, who, incidentally, is a Republican, with Chief Judge John C. Martin and Judge Sanford Steelman concurring.
This is not such a thorny question. The N.C. Supreme Court has ruled that the N.C. Constitution guarantees children a sound basic education, and that the state must prepare kids, including at-risk kids, to obtain that education.
In response, the legislature created the More at Four pre-K program in 2001. But in its 2011 budget bill, the legislature limited participation by poor kids, charged them a copayment and cut the program’s funding substantially. That, the courts are saying, violates the state constitution by denying kids access.
We imagine some will criticize this ruling, arguing that a judge shouldn’t have the power to single-handedly order the government to provide certain services. But that’s not what Manning or the Court of Appeals is doing. The courts are just saying the constitution requires a sound education. The legislative and executive branches chose to achieve that through its pre-K program. If they want to come up with a different primary solution, they can. But they haven’t. Rather, legislators have denied children access to the one key option they had been offered.
There are about 67,000 kids eligible for the state’s pre-K program. Only a little more than a third are enrolled.
We can imagine few better investments than preparing young kids to succeed in school. One path those children can take over the next 15 years leads them to a high school diploma and a brighter future. The other leads them to drop out, rely on unemployment checks and, for some, sit in jail. If we’re looking to save tax dollars, depriving at-risk children a strong start is not the way to do it.
Republican legislative leaders are pursuing bad public policy and a futile legal battle. Yet their spokesmen said Tuesday that they intend to fight it to the state’s highest court. While they do that, another 40,000 or so 4-year-olds could be deprived a classroom chair that they qualify for and need. How do you think that will play out for them, and for the rest of us?