North Carolina Budget Writers Cannot Impede State’s Constitutional Duty, Judge Says

Last Updated: July 29, 2011

This article appeared in the July 2011 Rural Policy Matters.

Editor's note: Links are free and current at time of posting, but may require registration or expire over time.

Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning has ruled that the state cannot implement portions of its annual budget that jeopardize North Carolina students’ constitutional rights to a sound, basic education. Attorneys for Hoke, Robeson, Vance, Halifax, and Cumberland County school districts argued in a hearing last month that the state’s education budget fails to meet constitutional guarantees.

The five rural school districts were plaintiffs in the original Leandro school finance case, filed in 1992, which argued that the state had a constitutional obligation to provide what is now called a "sound basic education" to every North Carolina child regardless of local circumstances. The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in the districts’ favor in 2004 and Judge Manning was named as monitor to ensure the state complied with the court’s mandate

The districts went back to court in response to cuts of more than $1 billion in K–12 funding over the last year and a half. Those cuts include $124 million in basic funding to school districts and cuts in funding for personnel as well as the elimination of funding for professional development, mentoring, and online courses for high school students.

Among the cuts in the current budget is a 20% reduction in funding for the state’s More at Four pre-K program.. In addition to cutting funding for the program, lawmakers limited the number of at-risk children in the program to 20% of the total, and added a requirement that most parents pay up to 10% of their income to enroll their children in the program.

Part of the constitutional guarantee of Leandro is that pre-kindergarten be provided for children who are at risk of falling behind their peers. Judge Manning ordered this hearing, saying “despite the difficult economic situation and a gaping budget shortfall, the basic educational assets guaranteed to each child must remain in place in every school and classroom in the State of North Carolina."

Manning cited the co-pay requirement and the 20% cap for low-income students in his ruling that the state cannot create a barrier to at-risk students enrolling in pre-kindergarten programs. In his order, he writes, “Each at-risk 4-year-old that appears at the doors of the program this fall is a defenseless, fragile child whose background of poverty or disability places the child at risk of subsequent academic failure.”

The ruling steered clear of setting any number or dollar requirements about the state’s obligation, avoiding what his critics had predicted would be a quasi-legislative mandate. Instead, Judge Manning clarified that at-risk pre-kindergarten children have a constitutional right to a quality pre-K program as part of a sound, basic education.

Legislative authors of the budget have responded to the decision by saying that the contested provisos were miswritten and that the cuts in pre-K were not their intention. It is not yet known how legislators will respond to the decision or whether it will be appealed.

Read more:

Coverage of the June 22 hearing:

Coverage and reaction on Manning’s decision:

Read more from the July 2011 Rural Policy Matters.