North Carolina Wrangling Over 4-Year Kindergarten

Last Updated: August 25, 2011

This article appeared in the August 2011 Rural Policy Matters.

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As reported in last month’s RSFN, the judge in North Carolina’s Leandro school funding case has ordered the state’s preschool programs to accept all eligible at-risk four-year-olds without charge. Program directors are facing an unknown number of newcomers to 4-K programs as well as uncertainty about funding levels.

Judge Howard Manning ruled in favor of rural school districts who claimed that state budget cuts were unconstitutional. In that ruling he ordered the removal of all barriers to at-risk students enrolling in pre-kindergarten programs. Manning and others have estimated that only about half of eligible four-year-olds have been served under current programs.

In response to Manning’s ruling, Governor Beverly Perdue issued an executive order to the Department of Health and Human Services to seek out and enroll eligible children, and she has said that she will call on the legislature to appropriate funding to support the program.

The state has defined the at-risk population as four-year-olds whose families earn below the statewide average, who have a disability or chronic health problem, come from a family that doesn't speak English at home, or have parents on active military duty.

Lawmakers disputed Perdue’s authority to issue the order, calling it a “political stunt,” and arguing that fulfilling the order could put the state’s credit rating in jeopardy because cost estimates for the program have come in as high as $360 million. The Republican legislative leadership also called on Judge Manning to clarify his order, and one North Carolina Senate staffer asserted in a memo to other leaders that there is no constitutional right to the program. Ultimately, Republican lawmakers decided to challenge Manning’s ruling in court; that appeal was filed mid-month.

Governor Perdue has responded that the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, which is now responsible for implementing the state’s 4-K program, has been developing a plan to determine how to serve additional children and that the high cost estimates assume every eligible child will enroll, which has not happened in the past.

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Read more from the August 2011 Rural Policy Matters.