K-12 public schools in North Carolina enroll about 1.5 million students, with 33% in poverty, 8% learning English, 46% minorities, and annual expenditures of about $11.5 billion. (Most recent NCES data)
In 2004, in Hoke County Bd. of Educ. v. State, (Leandro II), the North Carolina Supreme Court held that the state constitution requires the state to provide adequate funding and services to ensure that all students receive “the opportunity for a sound basic education.” The court ordered the state to correct all deficiencies that prevent schools from delivering this opportunity and assigned the superior court trial judge to monitor compliance.
In response to plaintiffs’ motion in 2011, the superior court conducted a hearing and determined that pre-K funding cuts and other changes passed by the legislature violated children's constitutional right to the opportunity for a sound basic education. The court ordered the state to refrain from implementing contested cuts and serve all eligible children. In 2012, the intermediate appellate court affirmed. The Legislature is expected to appeal to the state supreme court. On the appeals, defendant State Board of Education chose not to appeal.
In 1987, the North Carolina Supreme Court declined to review a state appellate court’s dismissal of Britt v. North Carolina State Bd. of Educ., a case seeking equal per-pupil funding.
In 1997, the North Carolina Supreme Court, in Leandro v. State (Leandro I), denied the State’s motion to dismiss and interpreted the state constitution to “guarantee every child of this state an opportunity to receive a sound basic education in our public schools,” and remanded for trial.
On remand, the trial court heard the claims of rural plaintiffs, in Hoke County Bd. of Educ. v. State and found that the state needed to reassess school funding allocations and correct all deficiencies that prevent schools from delivering the constitutionally required educational opportunity. The supreme court affirmed in 2004 (Leandro II).
Charter schools tried to increase their funding through litigation, including Sugar Creek Charter Sch. v. State, alleging constitutional and statutory violations because the state does not provide capital outlay funding to charter schools. In 2010, the superior court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss, which the appellate court affirmed.
In 1917, in Board of Educ. v. Bd. of Commissioners of Granville County, the North Carolina Supreme Court held that "it is manifest that these constitutional provisions were intended to establish a system of public education adequate to the needs of a great and progressive people, affording school facilities of recognized and ever-increasing merit to all the children of the state and to the full extent that our means could afford and intelligent direction accomplish." 93 S.E. 1001 (1917).
“Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools, libraries, and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” N.C. Const. art. IX, § 1.
“The General Assembly shall provide by taxation and otherwise for a general and uniform system of free public schools, which shall be maintained at least nine months in every year, and wherein equal opportunities shall be provided for all students.” N.C. Const. art. IX, § 2.
“The people have a right to the privilege of education, and it is the duty of the state to guard and maintain that right.” N.C. Const. art. I, § 15.
In Leandro v. State, the North Carolina Supreme Court was asked to address “whether the people's constitutional right to education has any qualitative content, that is, whether the state is required to provide children with an education that meets some minimum standard of quality.” 488 S.E.2d 249 (1997). The court stated, “We answer that question in the affirmative and conclude that the right to education provided in the state constitution is a right to a sound basic education. An education that does not serve the purpose of preparing students to participate and compete in the society in which they live and work is devoid of substance and is constitutionally inadequate.” Id. The court then enumerated the criteria for a “sound basic education”:
"Article I, Section 15 and Article IX, Section 2 of the North Carolina Constitution combine to guarantee every child of this state an opportunity to receive a sound basic education in our public schools. For purposes of our Constitution, a 'sound basic education' is one that will provide the student with at least: (1) sufficient ability to read, write, and speak the English language and a sufficient knowledge of fundamental mathematics and physical science to enable the student to function in a complex and rapidly changing society; (2) sufficient fundamental knowledge of geography, history, and basic economic and political systems to enable the student to make informed choices with regard to issues that affect the student personally or affect the student's community, state, and nation; (3) sufficient academic and vocational skills to enable the student to successfully engage in post-secondary education or vocational training; and (4) sufficient academic and vocational skills to enable the student to compete on an equal basis with others in further formal education or gainful employment in contemporary society." Id. (citing Kentucky's Rose v. Council for Better Educ.).
The court in Leandro also concluded that “the equal opportunities clause of Article IX, Section 2(1) does not require substantially equal funding or educational advantages in all school districts,” 488 S.E.2d at 256, similar to its earlier decision in Britt.
In Hoke County Bd. of Educ. v. State, a case in which plaintiffs alleged that the state's school funding system denied adequate educational opportunity to children in low-wealth districts, the trial court raised the question whether students’ constitutional rights extended to certain "at-risk" children before they reach the age of five. Based on evidence presented by the parties, the trial court ordered the state to provide pre-K education to “at-risk” children.
On appeal in 2004, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in favor of plaintiffs in Hoke County (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…." But, 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 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.
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 Superior Court's order.
The North Carolina pre-K program, More at Four, is rated an exceptionally high 10 out of 10 on the established quality indicators and serves 24% of 4 year-olds.
North Carolina law recognizes that the economic future and well being of the state depend upon providing access to high-quality early childhood education and development services to all children who could benefit from it.
North Carolina’s pre-K program is a state-funded, community based voluntary pre-K initiative designed to prepare at-risk 4-year-olds for success in school. Programs are operated in almost all counties in the state by schools, child care centers, and Head Start agencies that meet quality standards.
Priority is given to children who have not previously participated in an early care and education program and who are eligible to enter kindergarten the following school year. Children are eligible if they come from families at or below 75% of the state median income or if they have other risk factors, such as limited English proficiency, educational or developmental delay, a chronic health condition, or an identified disability. Children of active duty members of the armed forces are also eligible.
Pre-K is provided at no cost for 6 – 6-1/2 hours per day for a 10 month school year. Extended or wrap-around services may be offered at cost.
North Carolina also funds Smart Start, a separate public-private initiative that supports comprehensive early childhood services for children from birth to kindergarten in all of the state's counties. Smart Start funding may be used for many purposes, including the support of pre-kindergarten programs.
More at Four is funded through state general appropriations and revenue from the state lottery.
The funding that allowed for rapid program expansion from 2006-2007 through 2008-2009 was reduced by approximately $5 million during the 2009-2010 school year. This decline in lottery appropriations helps to account for the decline in percentage of 4-year-olds served.
A local match is currently required for the More at Four program, but the amount is not specified in the law or guidance documents.
Fees may not be assessed to More at Four families for services during the regular school day, but may be charged for wrap-around services and transportation. Fees may be charged for meals for children who are not eligible for free or reduced price lunch.
According to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), North Carolina served 24% of all four-year-olds in its state preschool program in 2009-2010, which represents a 1% decline from the 2008-2009 school year. The state has made great strides in the breadth of service in the last two school years, as it was only serving 15% of 4-year-olds in the 2006-2007 school year.
North Carolina was one of only two states to receive the highest quality rating, meeting 10 out of 10 benchmarks.
The state requires teachers to have a Bachelor’s degree and certification or academic concentration in early childhood, and requires assistant teachers to have at least a Child Development Associate credential or its equivalent.
Programs are not allowed to exceed a class size of 18 or a ratio of 1:9, exceeding NIEER’s benchmarks for these areas. Programs also must provide vision, hearing, and health screening, as well as parent support services, and site visits are required for monitoring purposes.
The More at Four program must include ongoing assessment of the children, a quality-control system, and a system of accountability. The Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Public Instruction are required to report on several aspects of the program, including the number of children, expected expenditures, cost per child, location of program sites, and expansion plans.
The More at Four local contract administrator is required to monitor participating preschool programs for programmatic and fiscal compliance. Additionally, the More at Four state office is authorized to evaluate programs using the ECERS rating scale, a standardized measure of early childhood classroom structure and process, and to use the information to assist with program improvements.
The More at Four program has been evaluated for both process quality and program impact/child outcomes through this process.