New Ruling Is Good News for At-Risk Preschoolers in North Carolina

Last Updated: August 28, 2012

This article appeared in the August 2012 Rural Policy Matters.

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Plaintiff districts in the state’s school funding case known as Leandro succeeded in court this month when a three-judge panel of the North Carolina Court of Appeals agreed that the state cannot create barriers that would prevent eligible preschoolers from enrolling in a pre-kindergarten program. The unanimous verdict upheld last year’s ruling by Superior Court Judge Howard Manning who ordered that every eligible child be served. 

The school districts returned to Manning’s court after last year’s session when the state legislature cut the budget substantially, capped the number or children who could attend, and imposed copayments on families wishing to enroll their children. As a result, last year’s enrollment of 24,000 was down significantly from previous years. Statewide, around 67,000 children are considered “at-risk” and eligible for a state pre-k program. Public schools often provide the only available pre-k slots in many small and rural counties.

After Manning ruled the budget cuts were unconstitutional, the legislature appealed the decision, saying that the pre-k program was not a necessary remedy to provide a sound, basic education, and that the judge had overstepped his authority by mandating statewide pre-k. But the Court of Appeals pointed out that it was the State that had initially made the decision to implement pre-k to meet the demands of Leandro:

“Under Leandro II, the State has a duty to prepare all ‘at-risk’ students to avail themselves of an opportunity to obtain a sound basic education. Pre-kindergarten is the method in which the State has decided to effectuate its duty, and the State has not produced or developed any alternative plan or method.”

The Leandro case guarantees a “sound, basic education” for all North Carolina students. In a 2000 decision, Judge Manning ruled that the constitutional mandate includes pre-kindergarten education for all “at-risk” children. This ruling was hailed nationally for specifically citing the importance of early childhood education. The state responded by implementing the More at Four programs. You can read previous RSFN coverage here.

Notably, the Court of Appeals also pointed out that, for the Legislature, the process of carrying out its constitutional duty is not static. "What is required of the state to provide as ’a sound basic education’ in the 21st century was not the same as it was in the 19th century, nor will it be the same as it will be in the 22nd century," the ruling states. "It would be unwise for the courts to attempt to lock the legislative and executive branches into a solution to a problem that no longer works, or addresses a problem that no longer exists."

Staff members for legislative leadership say they are likely to file an appeal to the North Carolina Supreme Court.

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Read more from the August 2012 Rural Policy Matters.