RALEIGH A Wake County judge was within legal bounds when he ruled that 2011 legislative changes to the states pre-kindergarten program violate the constitutional right to a sound, basic education for all North Carolina schoolchildren, according to the state Court of Appeals.
The unanimous ruling was issued Tuesday morning, adding another twist to a protracted legal battle about the future of the states pre-kindergarten education for poor children.
Superior Court Judge Howard Manning acted within his authority to lift legislative limits on the pre-kindergarten program the ruling said.
A spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger said his office has already asked the state solicitor general to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.
The case pitted the state Attorney General against lawyers representing five of the states poorest counties. They argued over whether Manning could strike down legislative restrictions on the states pre-kindergarten program.
At the core of the legal debate is an 18-year-old landmark case, known as Leandro, which has led to two state Supreme Court decisions and helped guide school funding decisions in North Carolina.
Lawyers representing poor school districts had challenged 2011 state budget provisions limiting the states pre-kindergarten program for at-risk 4-year-olds. In response, Manning ruled last year that the state cannot deny poor children access to the state program. Republican legislators said Manning had overstepped his authority.
The 2011 budget appeared to limit enrollment of at-risk children in NC Pre-K to 20 percent, and required families who were not at risk to pay fees. Republican leaders said the 20 percent cap was unintended and the provision poorly written. The legislature passed a new law in June to get rid of the fee requirement and cap at 20 percent children enrolled for risk factors other than income, such as developmental disabilities or chronic illnesses.
Melanie Dubis, an attorney representing the poor counties, said the Appeals Court ruling is important because it acknowledged Mannings right to monitor the states progress in complying with Leandro.
Evidence shows that pre-kindergarten programs are critical for at-risk 4-year-olds, she said.
An estimated 67,000 at-risk 4-year-olds qualify for the program. In June, about 26,700 children were enrolled, down from 32,000 in 2010-11.
Gov. Bev Perdue, Democratic legislators and child advocates applauded the decision.
Todays unanimous decision provides both a boost for struggling families and hope for every child across our state, Perdue said in a statement. We need to come together on a bipartisan basis and recommit ourselves to early childhood education.
The appeals court panel added that though the program called More at Four, now NC Pre-K, was the remedy chosen by the legislative and executive branches in 2001 to deal with the problems presented by at risk four year olds, it is not necessarily a permanent or everlasting solution to the problem.
What is required of the state to provide as a sound basic education in the 21st century was not the same as it was in the 19th century, nor will it be the same as it will be in the 22nd century, the Tuesday ruling states. It would be unwise for the courts to attempt to lock the legislative and executive branches into a solution to a problem that no longer works, or addresses a problem that no longer exists.
Therefore, the panel said, the state should be allowed to modify the program if needed.
That, the panel ruled, should be done through the trial court setting forth the basis for and manner of any proposed modification.