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Published in Print: October 5, 2005, as Pre-K Profile in School Finance Cases Grows

Pre-K Profile in School Finance Cases Grows

Preschool is part of basic education, plaintiffs argue.

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It’s a fight that could be coming to a courtroom near you: Plaintiffs in Wyoming’s long-running education finance case say they’re not finished arguing that the state has the responsibility to pay for preschool for children deemed at risk of school failure.

They plan to appeal Laramie County district Judge Nicholas Kalokathis’ recent ruling that the legislature needed to pay for education for K-12 students only.

Wyoming is just one of a growing number of states where those involved in school finance litigation are arguing that the state has an obligation to provide preschool for disadvantaged children.

The Wyoming case, known as Campbell County School District v. State, was brought by a coalition of low-wealth districts against the state in 1995. In 2001, the Wyoming Supreme Court required the state to “determine the best educational program for students and to figure out how to fund it,” said Ellen Boylan, a lawyer at the Education Law Center in Newark, N.J., who helped the Wyoming plaintiffs prepare their preschool argument.

Preschool became part of the case in 2004 when a coalition of school districts returned to court to say that the state hadn’t eliminated educational deficiencies. The plaintiffs maintain that prekindergarten has reached the point of being considered part of a high-quality educational experience that is “appropriate for the times.”

“There are strong arguments to support that, at this time, ‘the best education’ means kids coming to school prepared,” Ms. Boylan said in an interview last week. “Preschool helps level the playing field.”

‘Mainstream Thinking’

Plaintiffs in school finance cases in at least six states—Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky, Nebraska, New York, and Wyoming—are making the claim that states have a duty to cover the pre-K costs of their most vulnerable preschool-age children.

Preschool “has found its way into mainstream thinking,” Ms. Boylan said. She pointed to what she sees as a “raised consciousness” about early-childhood education among educators and leading groups such as those representing administrators and school board members.

“They all have position statements on pre-K,” she said.

Ms. Boylan is working to push the movement forward. Her project, called Starting at 3, is a division of the Education Law Center, the nonprofit legal-advocacy organization that won key victories in the nationally watched Abbott v. Burke school finance case in New Jersey.

New Jersey is still the only state in which the state supreme court ordered the legislature to pay for preschool for children in low-income districts. The Abbott preschool program, which began in 2001, operates in 30 such urban school districts, serving 3- and 4-year-olds in classes of up to 15 children that are led by certified teachers.

Evaluations of the program have shown that while children in the pre-K classes receive a high-quality preschool experience, many preschoolers in those communities are still not being served.

Plaintiffs in North Carolina’s Hoke County Board of Education v. State school finance case also argue that low-income children need preschool. The state’s compulsory age of attendance is not spelled out in the North Carolina Constitution, and instead is left up to the legislature. In 2000, a trial court ruled, however, that disadvantaged children were so unprepared for school that the state had a responsibility to provide them with preschool.

“They were looking beyond the literal language of the education clause [in the constitution] and finding a deeper duty to address the needs of children before school age,” Ms. Boylan said.

Even though the North Carolina Supreme Court eventually agreed with the lower court, it ultimately left the responsibility for creating a preschool program with state lawmakers in a final ruling in 2004. Nonetheless, that decision spurred growth in the state’s public preschool program, called More at Four, which started in 2001 and now serves at least 18,000 children.

Preschool is also an issue in the Young v. Williams finance case in Kentucky, which was filed in 2003 but has not gone to trial. The Bluegrass State already requires districts to provide half-day preschool to any 4-year-old who is eligible for the federal free-lunch program. But because preschool funding has declined in recent years, the plaintiffs are asking for more money for the program.

Other cases seeking preschool are also making their way through the courts in Colorado, Nebraska, and New York state.

Waiting Lists in Georgia

If the plaintiffs are successful in Wyoming—and the legislature is forced to pay for preschool—it will be the first time the state has had a state-financed early-childhood program.

But even in states that operate public preschool programs, plaintiffs are going to court and arguing that the state is not doing enough to spread high-quality preschool services evenly across the state.

Georgia’s lottery-funded pre-K program is more than 10 years old and serves more than 68,000 children statewide. However, the Consortium for Adequate School Funding in Georgia, a group of 51 rural districts that sued the state last year, argues that many children in their communities still lack the early-childhood education they need to start school on a solid foundation.

The complaint filed by the consortium says: “Plaintiff districts and other districts have substantial waiting lists for pre-K programs, and many students enter plaintiff districts and other districts at a significant disadvantage and are unable to avail themselves of the opportunity to obtain an adequate education.”

Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, responded in part to the consortium’s requests by successfully asking the Georgia legislature in its session this year for another $14.7 million in lottery money to add 4,000 more children to the pre-K program.

Gary T. Henry, a professor of public administration and urban studies at Georgia State University, in Atlanta, said it makes sense to focus resources on preschoolers because “kids are developing skills most rapidly in these early years.”

While the Georgia pre-K program now serves only 4-year-olds, more could be done, Mr. Henry said, to provide high-caliber early-learning programs for 3-year-olds.

Young children from working-poor families, he said, also need services during the summer to retain the skills they develop during the school year in the pre-K program.

‘Regardless of Need’

While preschool advocates are monitoring such court decisions and helping plaintiffs find research on preschool to support their arguments, many people in the school finance field aren’t focused on preschool, Ms. Boylan of the Education Law Center said.

“The people who are doing the finance work and the cost studies don’t really have it on their radar screen,” she said. “But, more and more, [preschool] is becoming a part of what a department of education department does.”

Dean Alford, a member of the state board of education in Georgia, who also leads the governor’s school funding task force, said work would begin soon on a “costing out” study to determine the price tag for an adequate education in the state.

While pre-K classes won’t be included in those figures, Mr. Alford said the task force would “be remiss if we put blinders on and didn’t understand the importance of early-childhood issues.”

Just because plaintiffs in many finance lawsuits are asking for states to pay for preschool doesn’t mean their requests will be granted, said Alfred A. Lindseth, an Atlanta-based lawyer who represents states in school finance cases.

“To provide pre-K is a very expensive proposition. The supply of money out there is not inexhaustible,” Mr. Lindseth said.

“In a lot of these cases, the plaintiffs want the remedies they are searching for to apply to all students regardless of need,” he continued. “You could save a lot of money by limiting the groups that get these programs.”

Vol. 25, Issue 06, Pages 18,22

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