As part of an ongoing effort to avoid complying with an important court ruling, leaders of the Republican majority in the General Assembly have asked Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning to “clarify” his recent order mandating that at-risk students be allowed to enroll in the North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten (NCPK) program.
For more than a month after the order was released, the General Assembly refused to take any action to comply with it even though school was set to begin shortly all over the state. That inactivity led to understandable confusion on the part of pre-kindergarten providers who have had no choice but to attempt to comply with the order on their own. These providers have already been under considerable stress dealing with the reorganization of the pre-kindergarten system and its needless transfer from the Department of Public Instruction to the Department of Health and Human Services.
In order to fill the void created by the General Assembly’s unwillingness to comply with Judge Manning’s order, Governor Beverly Perdue issued an executive order on August 9th directing DHHS to maintain and strengthen the program’s high academic standards and eliminate all admission barriers to at-risk preschool children. In their request to Judge Manning for clarification,Republican leaders stated that they did not believe Perdue’s action was warranted. However, they do not explain how inaction could be warranted in the face of Manning’s order.
The order is actually quite clear on several major points in spite of the claims to the contrary. In a memo sent to GOP senators in response to Governor Perdue’s executive order, Senate Majority leader Phil Berger’s chief of staff Jim Blaine wrote, “We do not believe the court intended for the governor to interpret the ruling in a way that creates a universal, constitutional entitlement to state funded Pre-K/daycare for 4-year-olds”.
But that is precisely what the order creates for at-risk four year olds. Judge Manning concluded his order with four specific key points in bold writing that are set off from the main text of the opinion. The very first point clearly directs that “[t]he State of North Carolina shall not deny any eligible at-risk four year old admission to the North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten Program (NCPK) and shall provide the quality services of the NCPK to any eligible at-risk four year old that applies.”
It does not get any clearer than that.
In case there was still any lingering doubt about the appropriateness of charging fees, which amount to about 10% of low income participants’ pre-tax salaries, Judge Manning stressed in his third bolded point that “the State of North Carolina shall not implement, apply or enforce any other artificial rule, barrier, or regulation to deny any eligible at-risk four year old admission to the prekindergarten program, NCPK.”
The General Assembly’s intransigence in complying with Judge Manning’s order could lead one to wonder whether NCPK is a worthwhile program. However, the program has been evaluated as a resounding success time and again by UNC’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute and Duke’s Center for Child and Family Policy.
On the national level, North Carolina’s pre-kindergarten program (which was formerly known as “More at Four”) has repeatedly been held up as a model for other states by national evaluators. Pre-kindergarten is increasingly viewed as one of the most vital educational investments that we can make. A growing body of research by education policy experts and economists, including Nobel Prize winner James Heckman, demonstrates that it produces large academic achievement gains and cuts educational costs in the long run. Indeed, next year’s federal “Race to the Top” grant competition focuses exclusively on increased access to prekindergarten services.
Amazingly, even House Speaker Thom Tillis — one of the chief architects of the legislative attack on pre-K — admits the importance of such services. In a recent written statement, he stated that “The majority in the General Assembly has no higher priority than providing services to pre-K students.”
Sadly, in spite of the obvious importance and success of NCPK, it appears that Tillis and his colleagues have decided to put their own political objectives ahead of our children’s wellbeing. Let’s hope they don’t get away with it.
Matt Ellinwood is a Policy Advocate at the Education and Law Project of the North Carolina Justice Center