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North Carolina Judge Rules that Early Education is Vital to Right to Basic Education




Financing, Governance/Leadership, Financing

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ZERO TO THREE Policy Center state updates




On July 18, 2011, North Carolina Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr. issued the first court ruling that acknowledges the pivotal role early education plays in allowing at-risk children to avail themselves of their right to a sound basic education. Calling specific attention to the benefits of participation in Smart Start, the state’s early childhood system, and the North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten (NCPK) program, formerly known as More at Four, Judge Manning stated, “each at-risk child under age 4 that is receiving services from Smart Start will be better prepared, physically and developmentally, to benefit from NCPK’s educationally based prekindergarten programs when they arrive at age 4.”

The ruling is part of the long-running Leandro school quality lawsuit. A previous ruling in the case established the standard that all children have the constitutional right to a sound basic education. In 2000, the state was ordered to provide “remedial pre-kindergarten services” to at-risk four-year-olds. More at Four was created in 2001 to meet this obligation. Approximately 32,000 at-risk four-year-olds were served by More at Four during the 2010-2011 school year. Evaluations of the program found that participating at-risk children had better language/literacy and math skills in third-grade than non-participating at-risk children.

The 2011 budget bill included numerous changes to More at Four, including transferring the program to the Department of Health and Human Services (and renaming it NCPK), expanding eligibility for the program to non-at-risk children, initiating a 20% cap on the number of at-risk children who could be enrolled, instituting a co-payment for certain families, and cutting the program’s funding by $32 million. Plaintiffs argued that these changes would curtail access to quality pre-kindergarten services for those most in need. In response Judge Manning wrote, “It is the duty of the State of North Carolina to protect each and every one of these at-risk and defenseless children, and to provide them their lawful opportunity, through a quality prekindergarten program, to take advantage of their equal opportunity to obtain a sound basic education as guaranteed by the North Carolina constitution.”

The ruling orders that:

"1. The State of North Carolina shall not deny any eligible at-risk four year old admission to the North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten Program (NCPK) and shall provide the quality services of the NCPK to any eligible at-risk four year old that applies.

2. The State of North Carolina shall not implement or enforce that portion of the 2011 Budget Bill, section 10. 7. (f). that limits, restricts, bars or otherwise interferes, in any manner, with the admission of all eligible at-risk four year olds that apply to the prekindergarten program, including but not limited to the 20% cap restriction, or for that matter any percentage cap, of the four year olds served within the prekindergarten program, NCPK.

3. Further, the State of North Carolina shall not implement, apply or enforce any other artificial rule, barrier, or regulation to deny any eligible at-risk four year old admission to the prekindergarten program, NCPK.

4. The Court is confident that the State of North Carolina will honor and discharge its constitutional duties in connection with this matter.”

The implications of the ruling are still unclear, but it has been received as a major victory for at-risk young children in the state.

A copy of the ruling can be downloaded at


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