News: CJ Exclusives

Court Throws Out Suit Challenging General Assembly Pre-K Changes

Subsequent funding changes by legislature made case moot, court said

The N.C. Supreme Court has thrown out a lawsuit challenging changes the General Assembly made to the state’s pre-kindergarten program in 2011, ruling that subsequent changes made that lawsuit “moot.”

Funding changes to the state’s Pre-K program, formerly known as More at Four, made by the state’s then-new GOP majority in the General Assembly in 2011, resulted in Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning ruling that the state was not fulfilling its obligations to make sure that children from demographically poorer families — referred to as “at-risk” children — were prepared to enter school.

The N.C. Court of Appeals upheld Manning’s decision. The Supreme Court, however, said that subsequent changes made by the General Assembly in 2012 modifying the 2011 changes made the lawsuit moot.

Senate President Pro-tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, responded favorably to the Supreme Court’s opinion on Friday.

“Today’s Supreme Court decision is a clear affirmation of the General Assembly’s central role in shaping education policy – and the size and scope of North Carolina’s pre-K program,” Berger said in a statement. “The court’s ruling ensures the pre-K program will move forward as the legislature intended – with eight out of 10 pre-K slots serving children who are financially ‘at risk.’”

House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said in a statement, “In a unanimous order, the Supreme Court today acknowledged the General Assembly’s role in determining the size and scope of the state’s Pre-Kindergarten program. The order reinforces my own belief that we have taken seriously our constitutional duty to meticulously manage the resources of this state so that every child in North Carolina has an opportunity to obtain a sound basic education.”

Bob Orr, a former N.C. Supreme Court justice who wrote a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the plaintiffs for the N.C. School Boards Association in the current lawsuit, said Friday’s decision solved nothing and only delayed the issue. “They obviously didn’t answer any questions,” Orr said. Sometime in the future, either the plaintiffs in the lawsuit or the State Board of Education, one of the defendants, will be back in court arguing the same issues, he said.

“It means that you’re looking at another two- or three-year time frame before those issues could arguably be back before the Supreme Court looking for a final decision,” Orr said.

Orr wrote the ruling in the 2004 Supreme Court case, which said the state had to create a remedy for children from poorer families who were unprepared for kindergarten.

Terry Stoops, director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation, agreed with Friday’s ruling, but also felt that there’ll be future challenges.

“This is the issue that never ends,” Stoops said. “Those who brought the lawsuit are already looking for ways to bring it back to the court.”

Stoops noted that the Supreme Court opined that the General Assembly in 2012 got rid of a participation cap in the pre-K program, and got rid of a copay requirement for parents, thus satisfying the complaints in the lawsuit. “They met the baseline for changes,” Stoops said.

Stoops said that wouldn’t satisfy the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, who want more money spent on pre-kindergarten education. “They still have the same goal in mind, which is to have the courts force the General Assembly to spend more money on public education,” Stoops said. “To them, that’s more important, now more than ever, because they don’t have the governor’s mansion or either chamber of the legislature.”