Republican legislative leaders are scrambling mightily to respond to Judge Howard Manning’s ruling Monday that the recently passed budget denies at-risk four year olds in North Carolina the sound basic education that the state constitution guarantees them.
Manning cited a provision that caps the number of at-risk students who can receive More at Four pre-K services at 20 percent and the new co-payment charged to parents of children in the program that may prevent some eligible four-year-olds from enrolling.
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis both bristled at Manning’s decision, with Tillis first suggesting that Manning read the law incorrectly. It is apparently always somebody else’s fault.
Then Tillis and Berger said that the cap provision may have been worded incorrectly and was designed to limit the enrollment of kids from families who are not low income, not to limit the participation of children from poor families.
Neither Berger nor Tillis said much about the new co-payment that is required or the fact that the budget slashes $32 million in funding for More at Four, eliminating slots in the program for 4,000 at-risk kids.
Even if Berger and Tillis are right about the confusing language about the 20 percent cap, this is not merely a matter of semantics. It is one of priorities.
Manning went to great lengths in his opinion to cite the studies that show children benefit significantly from More at Four, especially in combination with Smart Start, the state’s other nationally recognized early childhood program.
The budget passed this year slashes $72 million from Smart Start in the next two years for a total of a $100 million reduction in early childhood programs over the biennium, not to mention the restrictive co-pay now required or the ill-advised transfer of More of Four out of the Department of Public Instruction to the Department of Health and Human Services.
More at Four has been renamed the N.C. Prekindergarten Program, the name changed presumably because the program was created under former Democratic Governor Mike Easley. But changing the name only reinforces the mistake made in transferring it.
A program aimed at helping kids get ready for kindergarten makes much more sense as part of the department that administers K-12 education than it does in the agency that administers Medicaid and mental health services.
It is also important to note that Manning said that all at-risk four year olds who are eligible for More at Four must be allowed to enroll as part of their constitutionally guaranteed sound basic education.
Bizarrely, Berger cited that part of the ruling as a defense of the Republican cuts to early childhood programs, saying that More at Four has never been funded to level that would allow all eligible children to be served.
That apparently means it was ok to fund it at even lower levels this year and to add a copayment on top of that to make it less accessible for thousands of families.
Here is the bottom line that Berger and Tillis simply cannot deny. Because of their budget and their rigid insistence on cutting the sales tax, fewer at-risk children will get the help they need to succeed in school next year.
That’s the real problem Manning’s ruling exposes. And try as they might, Tillis and Berger can’t blame that on anybody else. It is their fault.