Superior Court Ruling Preserves Constitutional Rights of At-Risk Students

Superior Court Ruling Preserves Constitutional Rights of At-Risk Students
A statement from the NC Justice Center’s Education & Law Project

RALEIGH (July 18, 2011) -- Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard E. Manning ruled today that the state cannot deny any at-risk students access to the state’s critically-acclaimed prekindergarten services. Judge Manning found that changes to the state’s prekindergarten program contained in the recently enacted budget would bar at-risk students from accessing these services. As a result, provisions included in the budget that diminished prekindergarten services violate the state’s constitution. These changes included:
1)    A 20% cut to the state’s highly lauded prekindergarten More-At-Four,
2)    The shift of More-At-Four out of the Department of Public Instruction and into the Department of Health and Human Services,
3)     The imposition of fees amounting to between 8-10% of the gross income of impoverished residents, and
4)    Limiting slots in prekindergarten programming to 20% of at-risk students, thereby barring over 80% of the state’s at-risk students from participating.
 
Judge Manning ruled that any barrier to access to prekindergarten for at-risk 4 year olds violates the constitutional right of these students’ to the opportunity to obtain a sound basic education.   As a result, the provision in the budget limiting the number of slots available to at-risk students to just 20% of enrollment was struck down as invalid and fees may not act as a bar to services for at-risk students.
 
The Justice Center applauds Judge Manning’s decision and commitment to providing all children the constitutionally-guaranteed opportunity for a sound basic education. “This case has always been about the rights of children,” Judge Manning wrote. “Each at-risk four year old that appears at the doors of the NCPK[NC Pre-Kindergarten Program] this fall is a defenseless, fragile child whose background of poverty or disability places the child at-risk of subsequent academic failure.” Manning continued, “The fact that these small children are at-risk is not their fault and they may not be denied their constitutional right to the opportunity to obtain a sound basic education by adults.”
 
“Judge Manning’s order demonstrates that North Carolina’s at-risk pre-schoolers are more than just lines in a ledger sheet,” noted Chris Hill, Director of the NC Education and Law Project. “They deserve better than harsh cuts and an uncertain future.”
 
This order represents a huge victory for children and for the future of the state. North Carolina’s prekindergarten services have been acclaimed nationally and have provided significant educational returns according to regular evaluations. As a result of Judge Manning’s order, the General Assembly must now ensure that all of North Carolina’s approximately 65,000 at-risk 4 year olds have access to prekindergarten services and the opportunity to pursue a meaningful education thereafter.
 
FOR MORE INFORMATION, CONTACT: Christopher Hill, Education & Law Project Director, chill@ncjustice.org, 919-856-2567; Jeff Shaw, director of communications, NC Justice Center, jeff@ncjustice.org, 503.551.3615 (mobile).