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September 6, 2012

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 Shortly after the trial court ruling, the Legislature repealed those provisions of the statute.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.

Education Justice Press Contact:
Molly A. Hunter, Esq.
Director, Education Justice
email: mhunter@edlawcenter.org
voice: 973 624-1815 x19

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