North Carolina Judge Rules on Pre-K Funding For At-Risk Kids

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Photo credit: InspireKelly, Flickr.North Carolina cannot limit access to an early-childhood education program for at-risk children, despite funding cuts and enrollment caps in the state’s budget, ruled a state Superior Court judge.

"This is not advisory. It is an order," Melanie Dubis, an attorney for five poor school districts involved in the lawsuit, told the Associated Press.

North Carolina’s budget cuts funding for the program previously known as More at Four by 20 percent, transfers it out of the state’s education department and institutes copayments of up to 10 percent of the parent’s salary for the first time in the program’s history.

Wording in the budget also appears to cap enrollment in the program for all at-risk youth at 20 percent. Republican leaders, however, say the budget is designed to limit enrollment of children deemed at-risk for reasons other than just financial hardship - such as kids with active duty military parents, families that don’t speak English and children with health or mental disabilities.

"We disagree with Judge Manning's interpretation, and we are confident his opinion does not throw the state budget out of balance," Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, told the (Raleigh) News & Observer. "The budget does not cap the number of low-income students eligible for the program. In fact, the 20 percent cap exists, and has for several years, specifically to ensure at least 80 percent of the children enrolled are financially disadvantaged."

Later, after reviewing the budget language, Berger told the News & Observer the wording was indeed confusing and he could understand why Manning had concerns.

It’s still unclear whether the ruling will force the state legislature to redo part of the state’s $19.7 billion budget that took effect in early July.

The state’s More at Four program, now dubbed the NC Pre-Kindergarten program, stemmed from a landmark 1997 case that guaranteed every child the constitutional right to an education that allows them to compete for a job or higher education. Lawyers from some low-income school districts within the state argued that the budget undercuts gains made since the landmark ruling, known as the Leandro case after one of the plaintiffs.

Photo credit: InspireKelly, Flickr.

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