In August 2012, the North Carolina Court
of Appeals upheld a July 2011 trial court ruling that ordered the State
to admit all "at-risk" four-year-old children who apply to the State's high
quality preschool program. Pre-K has been one of the key legal and factual
issues decided in this long-standing and successful educational opportunity
litigation, Leandro v. State (Leandro I) and Hoke Cty. Bd.
of Educ. v. State (Leandro II).
In 2004, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in favor of plaintiffs in Leandro
II, and wrote "that 'a sound basic education' required the State to address
the problem of 'at-risk' prospective enrollees in the public schools ...
." The supreme court refrained from ordering pre-K as the only way the State
could fulfill this particular constitutional duty.
Nonetheless, in part as a reaction to the Leandro I and II rulings,
the State established the More-at-Four program to provide preschool to "at-risk" four-year-olds
to enhance their kindergarten readiness. In subsequent years, the State touted
this preschool program and its utility for fulfilling this constitutional duty.
In May 2011, immediately after the Legislature passed a law greatly limiting
access to the pre-K program, plaintiffs requested a hearing in Superior Court,
which resulted in the July 2011 ruling. Shortly after the trial
court ruling, the Legislature repealed those provisions of the statute. Nonetheless,
by June 2012, only 26,700 "at-risk" children were enrolled, down from 32,000
in 2010-11. An estimated 67,000 "at-risk" children qualify for the State's pre-kindergarten
program. (See the Public School Forum of NC.)
On appeal, the State argued that "the trial court exceeded its authority when
it ordered the State to provide pre-kindergarten services to all at-risk four
year olds in North Carolina." The Court of Appeals cited the history of the
case and explained that, "Under Leandro II, the State has a duty to
prepare all "at-risk" students to avail themselves of an opportunity to obtain
a sound basic education."
Based on the State's own actions and testimony, the court found that, "Pre-kindergarten
is the method in which the State has decided to effectuate its duty, and the
State has not produced or developed any alternative plan or method." The Court
of Appeals also held that the trial court "acted within its authority to
mandate the unrestricted acceptance of all 'at-risk' four year old prospective
enrollees who seek to enroll in existing pre-kindergarten programs across the
State." Accordingly, the court affirmed the trial court's order.
When the Legislature decided to appeal the 2011 trial court decision, the
State Board of Education chose not to appeal and aligned itself with plaintiffs.
Now, it is reported that the Legislature has decided to appeal the Court of
Appeals decision. If it does, the final ruling on pre-K access will come from
the North Carolina Supreme Court.
During the last 40 years, many states
have seen similar lawsuits brought under their state constitution's education
articles, based on the
absence of basic educational resources, such as quality pre-K that enables
disadvantaged children to start school "ready to learn." In some of these states,
strong court rulings and proactive legislatures or governors have led to major
improvements. See, e.g., Preschool, Abbott
V, in which the court ordered pre-K for children in the lowest wealth
school districts, and Abbeville
v. State of South Carolina, in which the trial court ruled that the state's
failure to develop and fund early childhood intervention programs, Pre-K through
grade 3, violates the constitutional standards for a minimally adequate education.