No move by legislature to address historic pre-k order

The better part of two weeks ago, Judge Manning made a ruling on the constitutional rights of children to a sound, basic education, specifically the rights of ‘at-risk’ four year olds to a high quality pre-kindergarten year of education. It was a ruling that recognized the substantial evidence, from around the nation and here in North Carolina, of the key role academic pre-kindergarten can play in improving the education and ultimately the life chances of poor children and those challenged by disabilities.

In that ruling, Manning made this fundamental point about rights and the long-running Leandro case:

“This case is not about numbers and slots. This case has always been about the rights of children. This case is about the individual right of every child to have the equal opportunity to obtain a sound basic education. The constitutional right belongs to the child, not to the adults. Each at-risk four year old that appears at the doors of the NCPK program this fall is a defenseless, fragile child whose background of poverty or disability places the child at-risk of subsequent academic failure.

The fact that these small children are at-risk is not their fault and they may not be denied their constitutional right to the opportunity to obtain a sound, basic education by adults. Likewise, it is not the adults’ right to deny them their opportunity. In fact, adults have no right, morally or legally to do so.”

In spite of these words and this legal authority, the General Assembly in the last two weeks has failed to address the problem they created. The Senate Pro-Tem is on the record as saying the judge is wrong. Senator Tillman, Senate Education Appropriations co-chair says it’s too late to do anything to correct the problem and Manning is wrong, anyway. The Speaker of the House has invited Manning to become a legislator.

Confidence that the state, “will honor and discharge its constitutional duties” (Judge Manning’s words in the July 18 order) is not supported by the subsequent intransigence of the legislative majority.

Their utterings are fighting words. What are they fighting? The right of ‘at-risk four year olds’ to access pre-kindergarten without any “artificial rule, barrier or regulation.” The shame of it.

As senior DCDEE officials have made recently clear and as Manning makes explicit in the discussion of his order, this means no co-pay can be required of parents or guardians of ‘at-risk’ children and there can no denial of enrollment in pre-k once a child has been categorized as being ‘at-risk’.

This is a landmark decision. No question. It requires pre-k in North Carolina to expand to the point where the education rights of four-year olds are satisfied. This is substantively different from the status quo, where budgeted dollars dictate slots and, ultimately, access.

Using the definition of ‘at-risk’ used by the More at Four pre-k program, very rough back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that in the last two years there are somewhere in the vicinity of 20 000 four year old children in North Carolina each year who are ‘at-risk’ – ie from a low-income family or have a disability – but who did not receive a pre-k education. That would suggest that in addition to the constitutional problem introduced by the new co-pay requirement, the 2011-13 pre-k budget is many, many dollars short of what may be constitutionally required.

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