The Right to a Sound Basic Education
Article I of the North Carolina Constitution asserts that the people of this state have “a right to the privilege of education” and imposes upon the State a duty “to guard and maintain that right.” Article IX extends the idea further by instilling responsibility in the General Assembly for providing and maintaining free public schools to which all citizens of the State will have equal access. Though explicitly written into the state constitution, much debate has circulated around the scope of the right and privilege of education.
In 1994’s Leandro v. State, known colloquially as Leandro I, the North Carolina Supreme Court combined Articles I and IX to hold that every child in the state is guaranteed the opportunity for a sound basic education in the state’s public schools. The question remained, however, of what a sound basic education entails. Ten years after Leandro I, the State Supreme Court again addressed the issue in Hoke County Board of Education v. State, or Leandro II. Focusing specifically on pre-kindergarten education for at-risk students, the Court held that the state has a responsibility to prepare students to take full advantage of the sound basic education that is their constitutional right and privilege.
While the Court in Leandro II solidified the State’s duty to prepare all students to enter the public school system, it left the task of determining the most appropriate method for doing so to the State Legislative and Executive Branches. From 2001 until 2011, the needs of North Carolina’s at-risk pre-kindergarten students were addressed by the More at Four Program. In 2011, however, the state Legislature attempted in its budget proposal to change the nationally acclaimed program, to the delight of some and dismay of others.
The Attempted Changes to a Sound Basic Education
Attempting to address current economic needs, Section 10.7 of N.C. Session Law 145 transfers control of More at Four to the Child Development and Early Education (CDEE) division of the Department of Health and Human Services and renames the program NC Pre-Kindergarten. Despite the change in department and moniker, the bill, now law, requires the high standards of More at Four to be upheld and mandates at-risk children continue to be served by the methods already in place under More at Four.
Though standards of quality and education are to remain intact, changes were proposed, and those changes brought about action in Wake County Superior Court and then in the North Carolina Court of Appeals. A primary point of contention is Section 10.7(f), which limits the total number of at-risk four-year-olds to be served by the pre-kindergarten program to 20 percent. Additionally, Section 10.7(h), which was later dropped after a Superior Court hearing, required the CDEE to seek a co-payment of up to 10 percent from parents whose children enroll in the pre-kindergarten services. Military families and families of at-risk students were, however, exempt from the co-payment requirement.
Unhappy with the proposed changes to the pre-kindergarten program, particularly its effects on at-risk students, several parties, including the Hoke County and Asheville City Boards of Education, brought action against the State of North Carolina and the State Board of Education.
Action over the Changes
Although the bill became law on June 15, 2011, a hearing before Judge Howard Manning was held in Wake County Superior Court on June 20, 2011. The hearing addressed whether the bill complied with the constitutional right to a sound basic education and Leandro II’s requirement that the State prepare at-risk students to enter its public schools.
Judge Manning ruled that the State has a constitutional duty to provide pre-kindergarten services to at-risk four-year-olds, calling for “unrestricted acceptance.” He further held that certain provisions of the proposed bill were unenforceable, as they denied access to the sound basic education to which each child in the state is entitled under the North Carolina Constitution. This led not only to the striking of the co-payment provision from the bill, but also to an appeal by the State and the State Board of Education.
In a unanimous decision, filed August 21, 2012, the North Carolina Court of Appeals upheld Judge Manning’s ruling, but with some clarification. The Court of Appeals interpreted Judge Manning’s decision to be not a mandate for the State to provide pre-kindergarten to at-risk four-year-olds but rather a rejection of the “artificial barriers” proposed in the new budget bill. These barriers, such as the percentage cap and the co-payment requirement, deny students a sound basic education, which violates the State Constitution.
While upholding Judge Manning’s decision to disallow the provisions at issue, the Court of Appeals made it clear that More at Four is not a permanent solution to the preparation problem for at-risk children. Because education and children’s needs are not static, the court provided that “the State should be allowed to modify or eliminate More at Four” as it sees fit – so long as the modifications do not deny anyone their right and privilege of education.
The Reasons Behind the Fight
Because Republican lawmakers likely will appeal to the North Carolina Supreme Court, changes are unlikely to occur this year. But why do these lawmakers want to fight the decisions of two lower courts? One main reason is money. The changes proposed in the bill cut approximately $16 million from North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten. The cost of complying with Judge Manning’s mandate to provide all at-risk four-year-olds with a sound basic education, however, could reach as much as $300 million annually, with the increase occurring over the next four years.
The price tag is based on the cost of providing each child with the requisite high quality education, which is estimated at $8,500 per child. In March of 2012, approximately 67,000 North Carolina children were eligible for pre-kindergarten classes, but fewer than 25,000 were served due to funding issues.
Certainly, the cost could be lower than anticipated should parents choose other options or should the State fail to identify all those who qualify as “at-risk.” Further, because the Court of Appeals decision did not require the state to provide pre-kindergarten services to all at-risk four-year-olds, but only disallowed the denial of access to these programs, the increased cost could be smaller than some predict. To comply with the current rulings of both courts, however, the number of students will increase to some degree. Because of the relative certainty in an increase in enrollment and uncertainty in the source of funding for that inevitable increase, the fight over pre-kindergarten access continues.
The Other Side of the Fight
Providing pre-kindergarten services to all at-risk four-year-olds is undeniably expensive. The benefit of these services, however, is also undeniable. The State defines “at-risk” as those children whose family income is below the state average, who live in homes where English is not spoken, or who suffer from a chronic disability or health problem. Children from military families also benefit from state-funded pre-kindergarten services. Family income, however, is often the focus of labeling a student at-risk.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, North Carolina has the eleventh highest poverty rate in the country, as well as one of the highest rates of working mothers. The discrepancy between the number of students who qualify as at-risk and the number of students enrolled in a state pre-kindergarten program further highlights the need for state action. And the success of More at Four illustrates that previous state action was working, a large reason why even with the economic changes proposed in 2011, lawmakers required quality and educational standards to remain in place.
Like More at Four, NC Pre-K’s mission involves providing educational experiences for at-risk four-year-olds that will prepare them to enter the public school system. A focus on high curriculum standards, staff qualifications, and access to the program for eligible families demonstrates the program’s commitment to providing all students with the sound basic education promised to them.
The Future of At-Risk Four-Year-Olds’ Sound Basic Education
With the prospect of an appeal to the North Carolina Supreme Court on the horizon, the changes that will actually be implemented to the NC Pre-K program are unclear. What is clear, however, is that the State is required to provide access to education to all children and to prepare them to enter the state’s schools. What is also clear is that budgetary issues are on the forefront of many politicians’ and citizens’ minds, and rightly so. The ultimate issue is how to make sound economic choices while also providing the constitutionally mandated sound basic education to all of the state’s students.