From the Covenant with North Carolina's Children Education Fund and the Justice Center's Education & Law Project
Key Impact: The NC Court of Appeals upheld Judge Howard Manning’s order requiring the State to provide NC Pre-K to any eligible at-risk four-year-old who applies.
In 1994, in Leandro v. State, boards of education in low-wealth school districts and individuals in those districts filed an action against the State, claiming a violation of the state constitutional right to equal educational opportunity. In 1997, the N.C. Supreme Court unanimously held that every child in the state has a constitutional right to the opportunity to obtain a sound basic education.
In 2004, as part of the ongoing Leandro litigation, the N.C. Supreme Court held that at-risk prospective enrollees in the state’s public schools had been denied their constitutional right to the opportunity to obtain a sound basic education. However, the Court held, at that juncture of the case, mandating pre-kindergarten for all at-risk prospective enrollees was premature and the Court deferred to the legislative and executive branches to devise a remedy. In response, the Legislature and the State Board of Education expanded pre-kindergarten services throughout the State.
Despite abundant evidence that this remedy has proven to be effective, in 2011 the State Legislature adopted a Budget Bill (HB200) that capped the number of at-risk children served in the N.C. Pre-Kindergarten program (NCPK) at 20%, required a co-payment for children enrolled in NCPK and decreased the overall funding for NCPK.
Judge Manning’s 2011 Decision
The 2011 Budget Bill was challenged in court under the ongoing Leandro litigation. Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning ruled that the state:
- Must provide NCPK to any eligible at-risk four-year-old who applies;
- Shall not enforce the 20% cap in the 2011 Budget Bill or any other artificial barrier to deny eligible at-risk four-year-olds from enrolling in NCPK.1
The State Legislature appealed Judge Manning’s decision to the State Court of Appeals.
State Court of Appeals’ 2012 Decision
On August 21, 2012, the N.C. Court of Appeals upheld Judge Manning’s order mandating the State to provide NCPK to any eligible at-risk four-year-old who applies.
Below is a brief summary of the key points from the Court of Appeals’ decision.
- The Court of Appeals ruled that the trial court did not exceed its authority when it ordered the State to provide NCPK to all at-risk four-year-olds who apply. In 2004, the N.C. Supreme Court held that at-risk prospective enrollees had been denied their constitutional right to the opportunity to obtain a sound basic education, but the Supreme Court held, at that juncture of the case, mandating pre-kindergarten for all at-risk prospective enrollees was premature. In the eight years since the Supreme Court’s ruling, the State has chosen pre-kindergarten as the sole method of fulfilling its constitutional duty to address the needs of at-risk prospective enrollees. Unlike in 2004, the State has now clearly selected NCPK as its remedy. Therefore, the Court of Appeals held, at this point it is not premature to mandate the State to not deny at-risk four-year-olds admission into NCPK.
- The trial court acted within its authority to mandate the “unrestricted acceptance of all ‘at-risk’ four year old prospective enrollees who seek to enroll in existing pre-kindergarten programs across the State.” Both the executive and legislative branches selected NCPK – and only NCPK – as their chosen remedy to address the State’s constitutional failings toward at-risk prospective enrollees. The State offered evidence to the trial court through its own witnesses attesting to the implementation and efficacy of NCPK statewide. Although the State Legislature argued that if the trial court is authorized to order the unrestricted admission of at-risk prospective enrollees to existing NCPK programs, the trial court’s order should be limited to Hoke County, the Court of Appeals was not persuaded that the record required this result.
- Because the 2012 State Legislature passed a law that changed the wording of the 2011 Budget Bill, the Court of Appeals dismissed the State Legislature’s argument that the trial court improperly prohibited the enforcement of portions of the 2011 Budget Bill.
- The trial court’s order did not lack sufficient findings of fact or conclusions of law. The trial court issued a detailed, 24-page order that discussed the scope of the issues addressed; summarized the decision in the 2004 Supreme Court case; explained the procedural history and relevant precedent; described the research on, and history of, the State’s pre-kindergarten program; laid out the issues raised by the plaintiffs; and provided the trial court’s conclusions.
In conclusion, the Court of Appeals affirmed Judge Manning’s order that the state must provide NCPK to any eligible at-risk four-year-old who applies, dismissed the State Legislature’s argument regarding specific language in the 2011 Budget Bill and concluded that Judge Manning’s order contained sufficient findings of fact and conclusions of law.
1After this ruling, the state chose not to implement the co-payment, which likely would have been considered an “artificial barrier” to deny at-risk four-year-olds from enrolling in NCPK. The legislature eliminated the co-payment requirement during the 2012 session.
For more information, contact Christine Bischoff, NC Justice Center, 919-856-3195, Christine@ncjustice.org.