RALEIGH – The N.C. Supreme Court is considering a case that could decide whether a prekindergarten academic program designed to boost the educational prospects of poor children must be expanded to enroll every needy 4-year-old, a move one estimate put at a cost of up to $300 million a year.
The state’s high court will hear from attorneys Tuesday in the latest chapter of a 19-year-old dispute brought by poor school districts in Hoke, Halifax, Robeson, Cumberland and Vance counties.
The first of two related lawsuits, named for the Leandro family that brought them, led the state Supreme Court to rule in 1997 that every child has a constitutional right to an education that allows them to compete for a job or higher education, and to be a functional citizen. The court ruled in 2004 that the right to a sound, basic education includes using pre-K to help children at risk of falling behind their peers.
A three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeals last year unanimously backed Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr., who ruled in 2011 that legislative cutbacks to the state’s More at Four program, now called NC Pre-K, would deprive most disadvantaged 4-year-olds from benefiting.
“This court’s 2004 decision in Leandro II is not an advisory opinion, and the state cannot simply ignore it,” Melanie Black Dubis, an attorney for the poor school districts, wrote in court filings.
NC Pre-K enrolled about 25,000 children in 2012, down from about 35,000 in 2010 after lawmakers cut its budget by 20 percent and imposed other restrictions. A September 2012 survey found that nearly 12,000 children were waiting for Pre-K services. Spokesmen for the state Health and Human Services Department, which now runs the program, did not respond when asked for current enrollment figures.
Expanding the program to all 67,000 children who may be eligible could cost taxpayers up to $300 million a year, former Gov. Bev Perdue’s administration estimated last year.
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