North Carolina would have to provide preschool education for all at-risk 4-year-olds under a long-awaited ruling handed down last week in a lawsuit brought by low-wealth districts. They claim state aid fails to pay for the basic educational needs of their students.
In the second installment of a three-part judgment, Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard E. Manning Jr. also cited other programs—such as lowering class sizes, improving teacher quality, and enhancing remedial programs—that could benefit at-risk youths. For that reason, some observers interpreted the ruling as potentially opening the door for more sweeping mandates to expand educational programs.
The third and final part of the ruling in Hoke County v. N.C. State Board of Education is expected soon. The court still must hear arguments from urban districts that joined the case.
“At the present time the state of North Carolina lacks sufficient quality prekindergarten educational programs to meet the needs of at-risk children,” the ruling states. “As a result, those at-risk children ... are being denied their fundamental constitutional right to receive the equal opportunity to a sound education.”
The judge called on the governor and the legislature to determine how to meet the mandate.
Some observers hailed the ruling as a step toward improving the chances for academic success for the state’s poor children.
“At-risk kids were suddenly given a voice today,” said John N. Dornan, the executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a research organization in Raleigh, following the Oct. 26 ruling. “The judge drew from his considerable experience with criminal cases [and his conclusions] on the relationship between failure in school and poverty and crime.”
The judge does not define precisely which students qualify as at-risk. But more than 30 percent of the state’s 1.2 million students qualify for federally subsidized lunches, and that figure could be closer to 40 percent among the state’s roughly 200,000 1st and 2nd graders.
In the first part of his ruling, issued Oct. 12, Judge Manning found the state’s standards and testing program to be constitutionally sound, but said the state needs to do more to boost the performance of the 30 percent of students who do not perform at grade level on state tests in mathematics and reading.