A recent decision by a North Carolina appellate court has left local school officials waiting on the General Assembly before deciding whether they must expand their Pre-K Enrichment programs for at-risk 4-year-olds.
The case came about after Republican lawmakers led a move to cut back on funding for the More at Four program, leading to a lawsuit against the state. The state Court of Appeals three-judge panel unanimously upheld Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr., who ruled that changes to the state program deprived most 4-year-olds from benefiting from it.
The court ruled that any at-risk child whose parents seek admission to the state’s pre-kindergarten academic enrichment program must not be excluded, but stopped short of requiring an expansion of the program to include every needy 4-year-old.
Now the General Assembly may appeal that decision to the state supreme court. Should the program be expanded, either by court decree or General Assembly action, significant changes would be needed. Local school districts would have to meet strict guidelines on square footage for facilities to house more participants. Special requirements for at risk Pre-K students for transportation and to maintain ratio of 18 children to two adults could require localities to hire more teachers and teacher aids.
That, according to Mount Airy School’s Superintendent Dr. Gregory Little, would be impossible to fund with local dollars. “Funding for this would have to be from the state. Locally, we could not afford it,” he said.
Surry County Schools Superintendent Dr. Ashley Hinson characterized the situation as a holding pattern and said educators understand this is a process that must be worked out politically before action is taken.
The Pre-K Enrichment program, formally known as the More at Four, teaches at risk children basic skills such as colors, numbers and letters, all aimed at preparing them for kindergarten.
Mount Airy Schools Coordinator of Student Services Jesse Hiatt said that historically the enrichment program served students declared at risk because of family income. He said 25 students participate in the program in the Mount Airy Schools. The age requirement for participants in the program is 4 years of age and eligible to start kindergarten.
Hiatt added that students who apply in mid- to late-June before the cut off date and meet the age and income requirements are generally accepted. He said the schools provide a cut-off date for planning purposes and so parents can make plans. He said in the past Mount Airy has used some local funds to supplement the program.
According to Preschool Coordinator Betty Covington, the Surry County Schools School-Ready program serves 183 students with 20 on the waiting list. All 11 elementary schools have one pre-K classroom with two classrooms at Rockford Elementary School and Franklin School.
About 122 of the 183 students get special funding from the state for at-risk 4-year olds. Covington explained that priority is given to children who are unserved and then to those under served. She added that all classrooms were full with the exception of available slots for children who receive special education services.
She explained the county works with other agencies and North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten providers to ensure that as many children as possible on the waiting list have the opportunity for services.
Attorneys representing the legislature’s decision argued Manning had gone too far when he overruled the legislative changes and ordered no eligible 4-year-old can be turned away from the program. The Associated Press reports that lawyers for five poor counties, the State Board of Education and the North Carolina School Boards Association argued the appeals court should uphold Manning’s ruling.
The crucial turning point appears to be while eligible 4-year-olds cannot be turned away from admission, Manning did not order the state to provide pre-kindergarten programs for all at-risk 4-year-old prospective enrollees. He is quoted as saying the legislature effectively limited the 8-year-old program by restricting the number of slots for 4-year-olds at risk of falling behind due to chronic health problems or because their families were in financial hardship or did not speak English at home.
North Carolina pre-kindergarten enrolled about 24,000 children in the 2011-2012 school year. This was a decrease of about 35,000 from 2010 after lawmakers cut program funding by 20 percent and imposed other restrictions. According to estimates from Gov. Beverly Perdue’s administration, expanding the program to all 67,000 children who may be eligible could cost taxpayers up to $300 million yearly.
Associated Press reports indicate that spokesmen for state House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, and Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, have said the legislative leaders plan to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court. The high court can decide if it will consider the case as well.