Court of Appeals upholds equal educational opportunity for at-risk 4-year olds. | Eastern North Carolina Now

Hands GOP legislative leadership a stunning defeat

    A unanimous Court of Appeals Tuesday handed the Republican controlled Legislature a stunning defeat on the issue of pre-Kindergarten education. The Legislature had restricted the number of enrollment slots available in the state's Pre-K program. A Superior Court judge who is overseeing the implementation of the Leandro decision ruled that by limiting the number of slots the state effectively deprived some, but not all at-risk children the right to access to a sound basic education.

    The state's Pre-K program was developed as a response to the Supreme Court decision that the state has a constitutional duty to provide a sound basic education to all students. But the court did not order specific remedies to accomplish this purpose, instead leaving that to the executive and legislative branches. The Legislature developed and implemented a Pre-K program but in the last session of the General Assembly, when the new Republican leadership was attempting to cut expenditures, put a cap of no more than 20% of the state's Pre-K program.

    The court's decision is 21 pages long but here's what it all boils down to. The law is clear that the N. C. Constitution requires a sound basic education being offered to every child. Note the word "every." The courts left it to the State to determine how to provide that education. One way the state chose to do so was to offer a pre-kindergarten program. But then the last session of the Legislature put an arbitrary cap on how many at risk children could be served by that program. That is where the Legislative leaders messed up. So in essence what the court is saying is: If the Legislature decides that pre-kindergarten is essential for a sound basic education then it cannot arbitrarily cap the number of students to be served if they otherwise meet the requirements to qualify.
North Carolina Court of Appeals: Above.     photo by Stan Deatherage

    The State argued that it was not required to offer a pre-K program. But the court, in my opinion, correctly brushed that argument aside. It said in effect if you decide to offer a program you cannot simply deny an otherwise qualified student enrollment in the program.

    This is analogous to an old principle included in the transportation of students. There is nothing in the constitutional that requires the state to furnish transportation to students who live more than a certain distance from a school (historically, 1 mile). But if the state chooses to provide transportation to students who live more than a mile, it cannot refuse to provide the same benefit to some students, but not others, who live more than a mile from school. That issue was settled many years ago when some city administrative units did not provide transportation until the courts said that if a student lived in a city unit more than a mile from school that the state must provide transportation if it provided transportation to students in county administrative units who lived more than a mile from school.

    The same precedent has also been applied to athletics. No school is required to provide students with the opportunity to participate in football (or any sport). But if the school system chooses to provide football it cannot deny any student equal access to the right to participate. The same has been held with driver's ed.

    What we have here is an obvious blunder by the Legislative leadership. The simple fact is they illegally discriminated against some students (those who were cut because of the 20% cap) and not others.

    The legislative leaders have said they will appeal to the N. C. Supreme Court. Because it was a unanimous decision by the Court of Appeals the Supreme Court has discretion whether to hear the appeal. We predict they will not hear the appeal on the cap issue and if they do hear it for some other reason they will upheld the COA decision that all children must be treated equally.

    And shame of the Legislative leadership and staff for trying to do anything otherwise.

    Click here to read the court's decision.

    Delma Blinson writes the "Teacher's Desk" column for our friend in the local publishing business: The Beaufort Observer. His concentration is in the area of his expertise - the education of our youth. He is a former teacher, principal, superintendent and university professor.
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