A recent ruling by Judge Howard Manning could bring sweeping changes to the childcare industry– mandating all children considered “at-risk” receive state-funded Pre-Kindergarten (Pre-K) services. Or, it might not have any impact at all.
Such are the wide ranging interpretations of the meaning and impact of the Superior Court Judge’s decision, which have befuddled North Carolina’s political players from the top down. While politicians and state agencies try to make sense of the judge’s verdict, many childcare providers tasked with implementing the new Pre-K program (formerly known as More at Four) have proceeded cautiously, hoping for a clearer directive from the state to emerge.
Manning’s mid-July decision scrutinized the GOP’s changes to the More at Four program, set out in the FY11-12 budget. The judge interpreted the new legislation as infringing upon the constitutional rights of children who are “at-risk” of academic failure by capping the number of “at-risk” students that can be served by the Pre-K program at 20 percent. Furthermore, Manning’s decision reaffirms the constitutional right for all “at-risk” children to receive additional educational assistance, i.e. Pre-K. This decision stems from the Leandro lawsuits dating back to the mid-1990’s that clarified the constitutional obligations of the state to provide access to a sound basic education to all citizens.
News of the Manning decision ginned up immediate political bickering between Governor Beverly Perdue and the Republican legislature, who had been exchanging broadsides for several months. Perdue, still sore over her budget veto being overridden, triumphantly called upon the GOP to rewrite their budget. “The Republican legislature passed a budget that slashed [pre-kindergarten] programs by 20 percent,” she told reporters on a conference call shortly after Manning’s decision. “I call upon our legislative leaders to act swiftly to fix this injustice so these children can start school in the fall.”
N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis (R-Mecklenburg) meanwhile expressed disappointment with Manning’s ruling and added that the decision was unclear before dismissing claims that the budget would need to be reworked. “One thing is perfectly clear from our review of the matter, today’s order should have no impact on the state budget,” said Tillis.
For state agencies, the issue was equally as complex.
Behind the scenes, the General Assembly’s non-partisan Fiscal Research staff disputed Manning’s decision. Fiscal Research publications allege that Manning confuses risk factors with income factors in his criticism of capping “at-risk” children at 20 percent of participants—a cap that applied only to non-income “at-risk” children. The remaining 80 percent of participants would be “at-risk” children according to income factors. Other Fiscal Research reports indicate that if Manning truly intended for all “at-risk” children to receive Pre-K, it would cost the state an additional $175 million to accommodate all 65,000 potentially eligible four-year olds.
DHHS recently began collecting data to implement their interpretation of Manning’s decision. In an email sent to NC Pre-K administrators, Jani Kozlowski of DHHS’s Division of Child Development states her agency’s interpretation of the ruling. “The court order has been interpreted to direct the state of North Carolina to view all at-risk 4-year old children as having a constitutional right to pre-kindergarten services, without identified barriers such as waiting lists or parental fees,” the email said. The email goes on to request administrators participate in a survey to help DHHS assess how to implement their understanding of the mandate. The Division of Child Development did not respond to requests for comment.
All of the uncertainty in Raleigh has trickled down across the state and has hit the front lines of the Pre-K program: childcare providers. Providers like Kevin Campbell from Mecklenburg County are unsure of how to proceed under the circumstances. “People don’t know what to do. People don’t know whether to follow the legislature or the court ruling,” Campbell told Civitas analysts. Campbell expressed concern over not knowing whether to implement the 20 percent cap on non-income “at-risk” children and was unsure of whether or not to collect the recently installed 10 percent co-pay for children who do not qualify for income-related “at-risk” status. Campbell said he will wait to collect the co-pay when there is a clearer directive from state authorities.
Former Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr disagrees with the considerable fuss created by the Manning decision. “I think everyone is overreacting to what I think Judge Manning has said,” Orr told Civitas analysts. “He did not order anything about the budget having to be redone.” Orr stated that Manning reaffirmed the basic constitutional rights set forth in the Leandro mandate and that any barrier to preventing eligible children from Pre-K would be subject to the court’s “displeasure.” Furthermore, it is incumbent upon the executive branch to carry out the court’s mandate—with the resources it was given by the legislature.
The chaotic variety of conflicting opinions over the Manning ruling doesn’t bode well for the new North Carolina Pre-K program, which is due to begin admitting students in several weeks. In the meantime, childcare providers look anxiously to state authorities to explain to them what the Manning ruling will mean for them and the children they take care of.