Fitzsimon File

A ruling for the kids

The ruling by the N.C. Court of Appeals this week that Superior Court Judge Howard Manning was right when he found that all at-risk four-years have the right to enroll in NC PreK was a victory for thousands of children and families across North Carolina.

But the folks in the General Assembly who have refused to provide at-risk kids the extra help they need to succeed in school are apparently not through standing in the way.

Staff members for House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Berger said they planned to appeal the decision to the N.C. Supreme Court.

They will go to any lengths not to provide access to the state’s award-winning pre-k program to thousands of at-risk four year-olds, apparently not moved by the ample evidence that shows the program improves the achievement of the kids who participate in it, kids who are otherwise likely to struggle in school.

This week’s decision upholds the ruling that Manning made last summer that the state could not deny access to NC PreK to any at-risk four year old whose parents sought to enroll their child.

Tillis and Berger bristled at Manning’s ruling last year with Berger saying Manning was creating a new entitlement program and Tillis questioning the judge’s authority.

Manning’s decision came after the General Assembly passed a budget that slashed funding for NC PreK by 20 percent and added confusing language about the percentage of children from low-income families who may be enrolled.

There are roughly 67,000 kids who currently meet the definitions of at-risk, most of them based on family income. There are currently 26,000 kids currently enrolled. That’s 9,000 less than were enrolled before the budget cuts.

Legislative leaders talked earlier this year of addressing the large number of underserved at-risk kids by changing the definition of at risk, a disturbing strategy supported by think tanks on the Right obsessed with shrinking government regardless of the impact on children or families.

That effort was derailed in the last legislative session and a plan to completely privatize NC PreK was also abandoned after intense opposition from educators and child advocates. Public schools often provide the only available pre-k slots in many small and rural counties.

This week’s Court of Appeals ruling appears to fall short of mandating that the state must enroll every at-risk four year old in the NC PreK. It just says that the state shouldn’t make it impossible for parents to enroll their kids by putting up barriers to their participation.

The ruling is an important step forward in the Leandro case that established that children in North Carolina have a constitutional right to a sound, basic education.

At-risk kids need help securing that right and the state should affirmatively provide it, regardless of the technical interpretation of the decision and whether it’s only about allowing all at-risk kids to enroll if they apply.

Estimates of the costs of enrolling all eligible at-risk four year olds run close to $100 million. Lawmakers ought to be able to come up with that in a $20 billion budget that gives tax breaks to millionaires under the guise of helping small business.

This week’s ruling gives lawmakers another chance to do the right thing and stop standing in the way of giving kids the extra assistance they need.. They should find the money now any way they can to enroll every at-risk four year old and build it into the budget next year by closing tax loopholes or making the tax cut truly for small companies only.

As many child advocates have pointed out, kids are only four once. We can’t let another 30,000 children down by denying them what we know will dramatically improve their chances to succeed in school.

There’s no need to parse the court’s ruling or file an appeal to delay things further. Stop stalling and complaining. Let’s get on with it. Find the money, help the kids.