Were a little puzzled by the fist-pumping from Republicans in Raleigh last week after the N.C. Supreme Court tossed out a case involving the legislature and the states pre-K program.
The court, in a six-page decision, dismissed an appeal of a 2011 lower-court ruling that said the Republican-led legislature had violated a constitutional mandate by making it harder for at-risk children to participate in pre-K. The court also vacated that lower-court ruling because Republicans undid the two things that landed them in court in the first place capping pre-K enrollment and initiating a co-pay for some eligible families.
With those measures gone, the justices said, the appeal before them was moot.
And yet, Senate leader Phil Berger crowed: Todays Supreme Court decision is a clear affirmation of the General Assemblys Central role in shaping education policy.
Added House Speaker Thom Tillis: The order reinforces my own belief that we have taken seriously our constitutional duty to meticulously manage the resources of this state so that every child in North Carolina has an opportunity to obtain a sound education.
Not exactly. What the order said was that lawmakers couldnt appeal a ruling rejecting something they have now fixed. The Court left intact its 1997 and 2004 rulings saying that North Carolina had failed to meet its constitutional obligation to educate its children, and it left intact previous decisions from Wake Superior Court Judge Howard Manning, who has been authorized to translate Supreme Court rulings into directives for the state.
Our mandates ... remain in full effect, the justices said.
The court, however, missed an opportunity to provide better guidance on what those mandates require. Thats unfortunate, because the state is still falling short on providing pre-K opportunities. Last year, experts estimated that under current income guidelines, close to 67,000 4-year-olds are at-risk and eligible for the N.C. pre-K program. But the states latest budget provides slots to just 27,500. In Mecklenburg County alone, 2,300 4-year-olds are on the pre-K wait list.
The court could have proactively ruled on the states low number of pre-K slots. But the justices seem to prefer to wait for a case in which a family was denied enrollment because no spots are available.
Meanwhile, Manning opened hearings this week into how the state is complying with the Courts directives. Help also could arrive from elsewhere. Lawmakers in the U.S. House and Senate, led by Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, introduced legislation Wednesday that would form federal-state partnerships to fund access to pre-K for low-income families. The Strong Start for Americas Children Act would provide federal funding, with a state match, to families with incomes under 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
Theres a hitch: Participation is voluntary for states, and Republican lawmakers here have a recent history of recoiling from federal dollars that would help the disadvantaged. Last year, the state rejected a Medicaid expansion that would have covered hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians, and ours was the only state to prematurely cut off unemployment benefits for tens of thousands by rejecting federal money.
Not that Raleigh should wait for Washingtons eventual pre-K help, anyway. At-risk North Carolina children are waiting to get into programs right now. Those programs would give them a better chance at a sound, basic education. Remember, thats what the state constitution requires. The courts, even last week, have not ruled otherwise.
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