It’s hard not to be confused about what’s going on with the early childhood program More at Four these days with court rulings, appeals, executive orders and political sniping all in the news.
Most of the explanations generally start with a ruling by Superior Court Judge Howard Manning a few weeks ago that budget changes made to More at Four this year by the General Assembly deny thousands of at risk four year olds the sound basic education that the North Carolina constitution guarantees them.
Manning pointed to language in the budget that seemed to limit to 20 percent the number of at-risk kids who could enroll in the program and was troubled by new co-payment for some parents of ten percent of their income. He also ruled that all at-risk kids should have the opportunity to enroll in More at Four.
Last year 32,000 at-risk children were in the program but there are at least as many that cannot enroll because of lack of funding. The Republican budget approved this summer slashed More at Four funding by $32 million over the next years, eliminating 4,000 slots.
The budget also renamed More at Four the N.C. Pre-Kindergarten Program and unwisely moved it out of the Department of Public Instruction, where it was closely tied to public education, to the Department of Health and Human Services.
That’s where the story really begins, with the decision by Republican legislative leaders to slash funding for More at Four, limit access to it with a co-pay, and rename and move the program out of its logical home in the education department.
Manning’s ruling seemed to catch House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger off guard and they initially claimed that Manning misunderstood the budget provision limiting access with the 20 percent requirement.
It must not have not have bothered them too much, as they notably declined to make changes to the budget provision in the recent legislative session. Republicans have also brushed aside concerns about the co-payment, calling it “nominal,” though many families would describe paying 10 percent of their income in a much different way.
Manning’s ruling prompted an executive order by Governor Beverly Perdue directing state officials to allow all eligible children to enroll in More at Four. The Republicans responded to that with venom, blasting not only Perdue but More at Four too, sneeringly calling it another entitlement program.
Then Attorney General Roy Cooper announced he was appealing Manning’s decision and Republicans may file an appeal of their own.
That ought to clear up the legal questions about Manning’s ruling, though the Republicans may use the case to try and limit Manning’s authority to continue to monitor the state’s compliance with the original Leandro ruling.
Manning is right that all at-risk kids deserve access to More at Four and they should get it whether the higher court agrees that it is a constitutional right or not. Studies show the program improves the academic achievement of children who the state knows face enormous challenges as they begin school.
That ought to be the bottom line for policymakers, helping the kids, and Governor Perdue ought to lead the way and present the General Assembly with a plan to phase in full funding of the program over the next few years.
Lawmakers could start when they return to Raleigh September 12 by at least restoring the cuts they made to the program in the current budget, dropping the co-payment, cleaning up the confusing language about who can enroll and putting the program back in the Department of Public Instruction where it belongs.
That would mean of course that Republicans would have to reconsider their offensive statements about an “entitlement program” that seems to blame at-risk four year olds for their plight.
Every child in North Carolina should be “entitled” to a chance to develop to their full potential.
That wouldn’t be in dispute in any rational debate. But these are not rational times in North Carolina politics, not when the radical right runs the legislative branch of government.