8/18/11 State appeals judge’s pre-K ruling

State appeals judge’s pre-K ruling
The Associated Press The Times-News 8/18/11     
Reprinted with permission.

   RALEIGH — A court ruling that the state must provide pre-kindergarten education to all at-risk 4-year-olds was appealed Wednesday at the behest of Republican legislators, who say the decision could bust the budget. 

The state Attorney General’s Office filed the appeal, which is the latest move in the battle over the state’s obligation to give every child a sound, basic education. Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr. ruled last month that the state’s established responsibility to prepare 4-year-olds for kindergarten meant the state budget couldn’t limit the number of spots for at-risk youngsters or require a co-payment from parents of up to 10 percent of their income to participate.

 Parents and providers have spent weeks wondering whether taxpayer-paid kindergarten prep services would have to be provided to all children who qualified.

 The state “shall not deny any eligible at-risk 4-yearold admission to the North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten Program,” the judge’s order said. The state could not enforce any budget provision “that limits, restricts, bars or otherwise interferes, in any manner, with the admission of all eligible at-risk 4-yearolds that apply,” the judge said.

 Gov. Beverly Perdue blamed the General Assembly for education funding, including preschool programs. The Democratic governor responded to Manning’s order last week by directing state agencies to admit all children who qualify, which could mean doubling the reach of a program that last year served about 32,000 4-year-olds.

 Republican legislative leaders say that could bust the state budget, and neither courts nor the governor control the state’s purse strings.

 Expanding the program while maintaining academic standards as Perdue mandated could cost the state between $145 million and $360 million, depending on how many additional children are served and how much local governments need to spend, according to nonpartisan legislative fiscal analysts.

 Perdue’s office challenged those figures, saying the additional cost is closer to $45 million, considering that the Legislature already budgeted $130 million.

 Spokeswoman Chris Mackey said in an email that the disparities in cost estimates are why Perdue’s executive order instructs the Department of Health and Human Services, along with the Department of Public Instruction, to develop a plan over the next two months. She also said the estimate is faulty because it assumes that every eligible at-risk child will enroll in the program, which hasn’t happened in the past.