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The budget battle began in June when the general assembly slashed $32 million--a cut of 20%--from the state's preschool program for at-risk 4-year-olds, 95% of whom qualify on the basis of income. Governor Beverly Perdue, a first-term Democrat, blasted the Republican-controlled legislature for "turning its back on our schools, our children, our long-standing investments in education and our future economic prospects." On June 12, she issued the first budget veto in state history. But that was just Round 1.
A few days later, the legislature overrode her veto. Then the fight shifted to the courts as a handful of low-income school districts sued the state, claiming the budget cuts denied children their constitutional rights. Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning agreed with the districts, ruling in July that the state cannot put up any barriers that prevent eligible at-risk children from enrolling in preschool. "This case is about the individual right of every child to have the equal opportunity to obtain a sound basic education," Manning declared, adding that each 4-year-old who qualifies for North Carolina's state program "is a defenseless, fragile child whose background of poverty or disability places the child at risk of subsequent academic failure."
The ruling that some children have a constitutional right to attend preschool is not without precedent. In 1998, New Jersey was ordered by its supreme court to provide high-quality pre-K programs to all 3- and 4-year-old children in dozens of low-income districts. The state responded by putting in place a research-based, data-driven program considered one of the most rigorous in the nation.
But judicial decree isn't the optimal way to get states to expand their preschool programs. The Pew Charitable Trusts just finished spending 10 years and some $100 million coaxing states into growing and reforming pre-K. As a result, an additional 600,000 kids are attending preschool, and some 40% of 4-year-olds in the U.S. are enrolled in state or federally funded programs. Meanwhile, early-childhood education is getting its own celebrity advocate (actress Jennifer Garner has taken up the cause) and its own Race to the Top Initiative (states have to submit applications for $500 million in federal grants by Oct. 19). The Obama Administration is also preparing to launch a three-year plan to improve quality control at the country's 1,600 or so Head Start centers and make low performers recompete for federal dollars; if a different program can prove it gets better results than a local Head Start center, the rival program will get the money and the Head Start center will be closed. But states can't bank on getting any outside revenue for pre-K for a while. And in the immediacy of a budget crisis, the one thing legislators can't ignore is a judge's gavel.
To comply with Manning's ruling in North Carolina, Perdue issued an executive order instructing state agencies to come up with a plan to serve all eligible children who apply to the program, which currently is capped at roughly 24,700 students. Perdue says the expansion is well worth the expense. "Preschool can totally change the outcome of a child's entire life," she says. "It's rare in public service that you can make such a cost-effective investment."