North Carolina's Supreme Court started work Tuesday on deciding whether the state constitution's guarantee that every child is entitled to a chance at a sound, basic education requires giving needy 4-year-olds extra help that one estimate said could cost up to $300 million a year.
The state's high court heard attorneys argue in the latest chapter in a 19-year-old dispute brought by poor school districts in Hoke, Halifax, Robeson, Cumberland and Vance counties.
The court ruled in 2004 that the constitutional right to a sound, basic education includes helping young children who are at risk of falling behind their peers. Then-Gov. Mike Easley and legislative leaders committed to a program of pre-kindergarten services then named More at Four and told the court it would be gradually expanded to enroll 40,000 4-year-olds statewide at a cost of about $160 million.
But in 2011, new Republican majorities in the General Assembly effectively limited the program they renamed North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten by restricting the number of slots for at-risk 4-year-olds and cutting funding by 20 percent.
NC Pre-K enrolled about 25,000 children in 2012, down from a peak of about 35,000 in 2010. A September 2012 survey found that nearly 12,000 children were waiting for Pre-K services.
Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr., selected by the Supreme Court to oversee compliance with its earlier school-funding decisions, ruled in 2011 that state officials could not create barriers that would deny an eligible child admission where a program exists. Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper, representing the General Assembly, appealed that decision.
Expanding the program to all 67,000 children who may be eligible could cost taxpayers up to $300 million a year, former Gov. Beverly Perdue's administration estimated last year. The state Health and Human Services Department, which now runs the program, said current enrollment in Pre-K is 26,707, a spokeswoman said.
Cooper's top appeals lawyer, John Maddrey, told the court Tuesday that state officials believe it's still a goal to expand the program helping needy 4-year-olds get ready for kindergarten, but its funding and scope aren't for a judge to decide.
"Their goal is to create a statewide system of pre-kindergarten and expand it over time, eventually to serve all people. That remains the goal. But that's not a binding, enforceable obligation of the state that requires the legislative branch to fund the program to achieve that goal," Maddrey said.
An attorney for the poor school districts countered that governors and legislative leaders hadn't simply committed to a plan or program that they could fund more or less based on their judgment. State officials were forced to respond after the Supreme Court determined a constitutional violation by failing to prepare needy 4-year-olds for school, attorney Melanie Black Dubis said.
"The state is saying in response to that, 'Well, we aspire to it. We'll get around to it. It's on our to-do list, eventually, maybe, to remedy a constitutional violation,' " she said.
The State Board of Education, for years a defendant in the school funding lawsuits, decided to switch sides, hire their own lawyers, and defend Manning's decision. The state school board's attorney, former Supreme Court justice Jim Exum, said previous legislative decisions agreeing to remedy a constitutional violation can't be discarded without something else in its place.
"That's the key to this case," he said.