It’s becoming quite trendy to blame Republicans for the recent decision by Judge Howard Manning to decree that all at-risk children receive Pre-K services. GOP leadership in the General Assembly wrote the Pre-K budget, Manning ruled against the Pre-K budget, therefore Manning ruled against the GOP—or so their logic goes. “The North Carolina Democratic Party applauds Judge Howard Manning’s ruling that Republicans cannot deny at-risk children access to pre-kindergarten programs such as More-at-Four,” the NCDP wrote on their facebook page.
But before this belief gels into conventional wisdom, let’s take a step back and look at the grounds for Manning’s decision. Unfortunately for those eager critics of the GOP-authored state budget cuts, the Manning decision doesn’t quite provide the vindication they seek .
In 2004, Manning ruled that under the North Carolina Constitution, additional educational help was required for children “at-risk” of academic failure before they even arrived in the school system. The courts left it up to the state to figure out how to do this. Manning followed up with his ruling this July by recognizing More at Four (now NC Pre-K) as the state’s means of constitutional compliance—thereby making them a constitutional right for at-risk children. He also barred obstacles such as wait lists and co-pays that would prevent eligible children from receiving access to Pre-K.
If Manning’s decision contained any political scolding, it was directed primarily at Democrats. In striking down the policy of waitlists and limited Pre-K slots, Manning slighted the previous Democratic administration, which funded in the range of 28,000 to 32,000 slots over the last couple years. The GOP inherited this policy and funded around 29,000 to 30,000 for the coming fiscal year with the help of a co-pay (which was also struck down by Manning).
The section of Manning’s decision that did reference the GOP’s budget has been disputed by many credible sources, including the General Assembly’s non-partisan Fiscal Research Division. The Division claims Manning misunderstood the law as it was written. While the original legislation established a ratio of 80:20 for income at-risk children to non-income related at-risk children (those considered at risk for asthma, childhood obesity, etc.), Manning’s decision seemed to operate under the assumption that all at-risk children in general were capped at 20 percent of participants.
On August 10, Governor Perdue issued an Executive Order striking down any limitations to admission for at-risk children to the Pre-K program, including the co-pay. These combined judicial and executive decisions may put an enormous financial burden on the state legislature to come up with money to afford as many as 65,000 children deemed “at-risk” and thus eligible for the Pre-K program. Unofficial Fiscal Research Division estimates indicate that it may cost the state at least $175 million. Additional questions remain about the capacity of the childcare community to handle such a massive influx of children. The legislature will be forced to consider their course of action in the coming weeks when they reconvene for a special session to take up constitutional amendments.
Manning’s decision was a rebuke of a Democrat system that did not provide the constitutionally entitled services under Leandro II to all at-risk populations of children in North Carolina. It also appears that the judge misunderstood the GOP budget in his ruling, as he criticized perceived changes to the program—although there were no changes made to the eligibility requirements. What Manning primarily criticized in the budget were program guidelines established long ago, which the new GOP legislative leadership inherited in the middle of a $2 billion fiscal shortfall. Democrats now interestingly are seeking political gain from the crisis, although their policies were more the subject of Manning’s scrutiny than anything to come out of this year’s budget.