‘More at Four’: Obey the Judge
Rather than messing around with gay-marriage bans and such this week, North Carolina legislators should be repairing the damage they’ve caused to pre-kindergarten programs.
Instead, the Republicans in charge of the General Assembly are trying to blame the problems they’ve created on a favorite whipping boy: Judge Howard Manning.
But Manning was only doing his job — and it’s never been an easy one — when he ruled in July that legislative decisions made in haste last spring had the practical effect of denying at-risk 4-year-olds the right to a sound, basic education that the North Carolina Constitution guarantees them.
Among other actions taken during their budget-cutting jag, the lawmakers slashed funding to the More at Four program. They also decided to start charging a co-pay to parents of children eligible for the program, clearly putting many families at risk of losing access to these services.
Not ‘Judicial Activism’
In the groundbreaking Leandro case, the N.C. Supreme Court made sweeping rulings in 1997 and again in 2004, saying the state had failed in its constitutional duty to provide its children with an adequate education. Manning was handed the unenviable assignment of turning that judicial mandate into on-the-ground realities.
He has not shrunk from fulfilling that responsibility with a string of stringent rulings over the years, making some implacable enemies along the way and earning a reputation for “judicial activism.”
That was the cry that went up after Manning ruled that the General Assembly had run afoul of Leandro when it slashed funding for pre-K programs, initiated fees and put limits on enrollments. The budget changes also gave More at Four a new name, “N.C. Pre-Kindergarten,” and moved it from the Department of Public Instruction to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Funding Remains an Issue
Though they had generally supported the More at Four program earlier, the dominant Republicans in Raleigh changed their tune after Draconian budget cuts became necessary as a result of the legislature’s adamant decision not to leave 2009’s temporary sales tax on the books. At that point, they took to referring to More at Four as a “massive new welfare program.”
Manning is having none of that. Though he has been accused of inflexibility in the past, he seems justified in not relenting in this case. Eliminating more than 4,000 slots in More at Four puts too many at-risk kids at even great risk and looks like a clear violation of the Supreme Court ruling.
Where the money will come from to maintain the program at existing levels is an open question — especially given grim current budget realities. At the time of Manning’s ruling, Gov. Beverly Perdue said it was clear to her that it meant the state should admit all the children who qualify, not just the ones it deigns to accept. But she also acknowledged that “full implementation of the order cannot be immediate, given the current limitations of space, staff and resources.”
Fair enough. At the very least, though, the legislature should face facts, put politics aside and work with the governor on an implementation plan for the future.
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