5/31/12 Pre-K limits get attention days before appeal

Pre-K limits get attention days before appeal
Lawmakers reversing some language
The Associated Press The Times-News 5/31/12     
Reprinted with permission.

   RALEIGH — Days before a North Carolina appeals court takes up whether every needy child must be given pre-kindergarten education, state lawmakers are reversing some of the language in the bill that prompted the lawsuit.

   Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said Wednesday senators want to take back last year’s changes to the North Carolina Pre-K program that a judge said violated the state’s duty to give every child a chance at a sound, basic education. The state Court of Appeals hears arguments in that case on Tuesday.

   Last year, Republicans controlled the General Assembly for the first time in more than a century and lawmakers were able to muscle into law several changes to a highly regarded state program then-called More at Four. The program was designed to help disadvantaged children reach kindergarten ready to learn.

   The Legislature’s changes limited the number of spots for at-risk youngsters and required even impoverished parents to contribute up to 10 percent of their income as co-payment for their children to participate.

   Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr. ruled last summer that the changes would deprive most at-risk children from benefitting from the remedial education plan, and that meant the state was abandoning its previous efforts to live up to its constitutional duty to give every child a chance at a sound, basic education. The state Supreme Court selected Manning to oversee compliance with the court’s earlier rulings that found state officials had deprived poor children an equal shot at the education guaranteed by the North Carolina constitution.

   The judge ruled that the Legislature effectively limited the program renamed North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten by restricting the number of slots for 4-year-olds who were at risk of falling behind their peers to just 6,400 while keeping 25,600 spots open to others.

   Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said the language was “admittedly imprecise.” They said they had intended to limit enrollment only for those students defined as “at-risk” for reasons other than financial hardship, such as chronic health problems.

   The co-payment requirement would further reduce participation, causing “a severe and significant impact on the ability of at-risk children to access the program and have the remediation that they need to be prepared for kindergarten,” Manning ruled.

   Legislators now want to remove those limits, and add between 2,000 and 3,000 slots in NC Pre-K next year. But last year’s legislative action and the lawsuit it wrought have had broader implications.

   Manning’s ruling, now being challenged to the appeals court, said the state must admit into the pre-kindergarten program any eligible at-risk 4-year-old. That could mean expanding the program to serve an estimated 67,000 eligible children. NC Pre-K enrolled about 24,000 children in the just-completed school year, down from about 35,000 in 2010 after lawmakers cut its funding by 20 percent.