Tight times don’t excuse violating the state Constitution. North Carolina’s Supreme Court can make that clear in a case it will hear Tuesday.
Squeezed financially, the N.C. legislature blocked thousands of at-risk children from the state’s revered pre-kindergarten program in 2011. A Superior Court judge and a three-judge Court of Appeals panel each said that violated the state Constitution. Now, the Supreme Court will settle the matter.
The state makes a puzzling argument. It accepts a 1997 Supreme Court ruling (in a case known as Leandro) that the state has a constitutional responsibility to provide all children a sound basic education. It agrees that pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds was the primary way it planned to meet that responsibility for children before kindergarten. It even touts the program’s effectiveness and cost efficiency.
Yet it defends its right to shrink it dramatically when it likes, even without offering another way to meet its constitutional obligation.
The state says it’s the legislature’s job to make policy, not the courts’, and in general that’s clearly true. The Supreme Court agreed in 2004, deferring to the legislature in deciding how to fulfill its constitutional duty to provide an equal education to all, particularly low-income children.
The legislature chose to create More At Four, its pre-K program. Enrollment soared in its first decade. But in June 2011, the legislature passed a budget that limited the number of at-risk kids to 20 percent of all the students in the program and erected other barriers, such as co-payments, that kept thousands of children from attending.
Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning ruled a month later that the changes were unconstitutional, because they didn’t allow all children to obtain a sound, basic education. An appeals court panel that included two Republicans unanimously upheld Manning’s ruling in August 2012. The state argues Manning overstepped his authority.
We are uneasy when a court tiptoes toward crafting policy rather than passing judgment on existing policy (or the lack of it). But in this case, the courts are not dictating how the state educates its children. They have simply ruled that the state can’t offer pre-K as its way to meet its constitutional duties but then deny it to certain children.
Last summer, the legislature repealed some of the changes that Manning had struck down. But the case proceeds, as it must to shape future policy.
Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Exum is representing the state Board of Education in this litigation. He hopes Manning’s ruling is upheld so N.C. students’ futures are not “subject to whatever political winds blow across the state from time to time.”
It is tempting to treat this as just a legal tussle. In fact, it’s about the lives of 67,000 poor 4-year-olds across the state, and future 4-year-olds, who could be so far behind by the third grade that they never catch up.
If North Carolina has another way to get them on equal footing, it should let us all know. Until then, it can’t choose to adequately educate some students but not others.