Published Online: October 29, 2013
Published in Print: October 30, 2013, as State Pre-K Obligation At Center of Dispute Before N.C. High Court

N.C. Supreme Court to Decide on Pre-K Funding

Case tests early education, equity link

The North Carolina Supreme Court is weighing arguments in a case that will help decide if the state must pay for preschool to bridge achievement gaps—an obligation that some estimates suggest would require making room for more than 60,000 children at a cost of $300 million annually.

The case, heard before the court earlier this month, is part of a growing trend of school finance and equity cases around the country that have focused on early childhood education for students at risk of school failure.

Every state's constitution has language about the right to a public education, said Molly Hunter, the executive director of the Newark, N.J.-based organization Education Justice, which advocates on behalf of school equity.

The argument that preschool is a part of a child's educational rights has met with mixed results, she said. One well-known equity case in New Jersey, Abbott v. Burke, established preschools in 31 low-income districts. And in North Carolina, the high court has said in an earlier decision that preschoolers have the same educational rights as those enrolled in public school.

Legal Battles

The case heard before the North Carolina Supreme Court on preschool eligibility is just the latest legal move in a long-running series of educational equity cases.

May 1994
Five rural low-income school districts, Cumberland, Halifax, Hoke, Robeson, and Vance counties, sue the state, saying they believed their systems were not receiving the same educational opportunities as wealthier districts. Some wealthier urban districts eventually joined the case, formerly known as Leandro v. State of North Carolina, saying they were not provided enough state funding to meet the needs of their English-learners, special education students, and gifted students.

July 1997
The state Supreme Court reverses an appeals court decision that goes against the districts, instead ruling that every child in the state is guaranteed the right to a “sound basic” education. The case is sent back for trial before Superior Court Judge Howard Manning, who issues a series of rulings that outline how the state must meet its constitutional obligation.

Feb. 2001
Former Gov. Mike Easley, a Democrat, introduces More at Four, a program for preschoolers from low-income families. The program is intended to serve as one remedy to address the requirement that all students receive a “sound basic education.”

July 2004
After further litigation, the state Supreme Court makes a ruling in Hoke County Board of Education v. State of North Carolina that the right to a sound basic education extends to preschoolers. Gov. Easley and other lawmakers say that the early-childhood program is their way of addressing education inequities for preschool-aged children.

June 2011
The North Carolina General Assembly passes a budget that renames More at Four to the North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten Program, reduces funding to the program, tightens eligibility, and institutes an income-based sliding scale for monthly tuition.

July 2011
After the budget passes, Judge Manning rules that the state is violating its constitution and cannot enact “artificial barriers” to preschool enrollment.

October 2013
After the judge’s ruling is upheld on appeal, the issue of whether the state is obligated to provide preschool to at-risk children is argued before the state Supreme Court.

However, the North Carolina court has, so far, stopped short of mandating preschool. So have courts in other states, saying that's a remedy that should be left up to the legislative branch to enact.

The current case, the latest in a series of legal actions spanning 19 years, will require the court to re-examine its deference to the legislative branch.

In 1994, five rural districts and parents sued North Carolina, saying that their counties did not have the tax revenue for the same type of education that wealthier districts provide. The case was known as Leandro v. State of North Carolina, after the family that was the first named plaintiff in the legal action.

Governor Takes Action

In 1997, the high court ruled that all children were entitled to a "sound basic education," and that it was the state's responsibility to provide that education.

Further litigation led to Hoke County Board of Education v. State of North Carolina, informally known as Leandro II. In that 2004 decision, the state's high court reaffirmed its earlier ruling, saying that the right to a sound basic education applied not only to children in K-12 public schools, but also to younger children.

While the cases continued, then-Gov. Michael F. Easley, a Democrat, pushed through legislation for a state-funded preschool program called More At Four.

In a recent interview with Education Week, he said the program was specifically developed as one remedy for achievement gaps between students from low-income families and their better-off peers. The program is currently open to children from families of four making under $51,000 a year, which is about 75 percent of the state's median income.

Program Found Effective

"My long-term program was to get kids ready, so that those children who are behind speed up so they can reach their full potential," Mr. Easley said. "And the children who are ready don't get slowed down."

More at Four was launched in 2001, and the program eventually peaked at about 35,000 4-year-olds in 2010-11, at a cost of approximately $170 million a year. It also became one of the best-regarded state-funded preschool programs in the country in the evaluation of the National Institute of Early Education Research, based at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

Both the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and researchers at Duke University in Durham, N.C. studied the program and found positive effects of the program lasting until third grade.

"I don't think there's anything else that Duke and UNC agree on," said W. Steven Barnett, the director of NIEER.

But the program was always on tenuous financial footing, Mr. Easley said. State lawmakers offered various arguments against it, including that it is a large government entitlement program, or that the income eligibility is too broad.

In 2011, in the wake of a large budget deficit and a change in the state legislature to a Republican majority, the legislature cut funding for the program and attempted to tighten eligibility requirements and set up an income-based sliding scale for tuition payment. The legislature also moved the program from the state education department to the early-childhood division of the state's department of health and human services.

Those changes immediately sparked a legal challenge, which led to the case now before the state supreme court—also titled Hoke County Board of Education v. State of North Carolina.

The trial judge who had overseen other Leandro-related litigation, Judge Howard E. Manning Jr., wrote in July 2011 that although the state supreme court did not require any particular solution, including preschool, to address educational inequities, the preschool program was the only remedy the state had ever offered for its obligation to provide a sound basic education to young children. Thus, the state had to continue to make the program available to all the state's 4-year-olds deemed at risk of school failure, Judge Manning ruled.

Lawmakers eventually withdrew their restrictions on eligibility for the preschool program, though the funding reduction has cut slots to about 26,000. Universal prekindergarten for at-risk children is an aspiration of the state's, but not a legally mandated requirement, the state has argued in its appeal of Judge Manning's ruling.

The Abbott v. Burke in New Jersey is one of the first cases to link educational equity to early-childhood education. First filed in 1981 as a lawsuit by students in low-income districts, it eventually led to a succession of decisions relating to school equity.

Preschool Needed

But preschool is not always supported as an equity issue. In 2008, the Wyoming Supreme Court closed a case that started as a 1995 equity case, Campbell County School District v. State of Wyoming. The state's high court said it could not order preschool because Wyoming's constitution obligates the state to provide education starting at age 6.

Related Blog

And in May, the Colorado Supreme Court handed a defeat to plaintiffs who were arguing that the state's formula for funding schools was inequitable and offered preschool as one remedy.

But even in defeat, Colorado early-education advocates have been about to find traction. A week before the court released its decision, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, signed a bill that would pay for preschool for children deemed at risk of academic failure, fund full-day kindergarten, and revamp the state's school finance formula. Voters there still have decide if they want to enact a tax increase to finance the nearly $1 billion program.

While the North Carolina justices mull the Hoke County case, the action has made partners out of former opponents. James G. Exum Jr., a former chief justice of the state supreme court, is representing the North Carolina board of education in the case. The board fought the original Leandro lawsuit, but is in favor of expanded preschool in this case.

"There's no doubt in our mind we have committed ourselves to this particular remedy," Mr. Exum said in an interview. "Until you come up with something else, you cannot deny this remedy to people who are eligible to have it."

Vol. 33, Issue 10, Pages 16-17, 20

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