A recent decision by the North Carolina Supreme Court didn’t undo the state’s constitutional promise to provide children with a decent education. But tens of thousands of low-income children are still in line, waiting on slots in the state-funded pre-K program that would help North Carolina make good on that promise.
Failing to keep it could mean a generation of North Carolinians falls a few more steps behind in education, and eventually in life.
Last month, the Supreme Court threw out an appeal filed in the latest incarnation of Leandro v. State, a two-decades old case. What does that really mean? In short, Leandro has historically held that all children in the state of North Carolina have a right to a “sound, basic education.” Earlier rulings gave state lawmakers the power to provide that education however they saw fit. Since 2004 the state had addressed that need with several programs targeting lower-income youth, most notably a public pre-K program for at-risk children.
For years that program steadily grew, adding thousands of 4-year-olds each year to the state’s pre-k rolls. A 2011 budget passed by the state General Assembly changed the program, decreasing overall funding and adding a copay and a cap on the number of at-risk children who could enroll. Later in 2011, a judge found that the cap and copay amounted to a barrier that would prevent needy families from using the program.
The Supreme Court said this month that the case was moot since the state had removed the cap and copay and fixed the conditions that led to the complaints. Mark Dorosin, managing attorney at the UNC Center for Civil Rights, represents a set of plaintiffs on the ongoing Leandro case. He says the most recent ruling means keeping the status quo for NC Pre-K, and that’s not particularly good news.
“It’s a slow and long process and I think that little substantive progress is being made on addressing the needs of at-risk kids across the state,” he said.
Currently there are approximately 65,000 at-risk 4 year olds in the state. The state budget provides funding for 27,500 students, a number that has decreased in recent years as the General Assembly has changed state budget priorities. Dorosin says he believes Leandro established a precedent that every at-risk child should be given a funded spot in a state pre-K program, but expanding the program to meet that expectation would cost the state more than $300 million.
Wait lists for NC Pre-K in some counties, such as Charlotte-Mecklenburg, stretch into the thousands. Christine Bischoff, staff attorney at the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education & Law Project says these 4-year-olds are being denied their state constitutional right.
Increasingly, research supports the benefits of pre-K. According to a recent national study, many children in lower-income households hear 30 million fewer words by age three than their more affluent peers. This early exposure to language translates to literacy, comfort in a classroom setting, and lifelong patterns of achievement.
By age 5, the education gap caused by income increases, say experts. A study performed by the Society for Research in Child Development and funded by the Foundation for Child Development found that children who have been in a quality pre-K program enter kindergarten 3 months to a year academically ahead of their peers. These students perform higher on socio-emotional assessments, and continue to achieve higher than their peers for years.
Ellen Peisner-Feinberg, a senior scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Center for Child Development, leads the team that studies North Carolina’s pre-K program. She says by nearly every measure, the state delivers extremely high quality education to its 4-year-olds.
“North Carolina achieves highly in terms of qualifications for teachers, use of curriculum, ongoing assessment, low class sizes, good teacher child ratios, as well as monitoring and professional development on part of the state agency overseeing the program,” she said. “A lot of program guidelines and standards are in place to ensure it will be a high quality program.”
A recent study by Peisner-Feinberg’s team found that in North Carolina, at-risk children who had been enrolled in the public pre-kindergarten program had measurably higher scores in math and reading on the third grade end of grade tests. Although her data stops there, Peisner-Feinberg points to national research that shows long-lasting effects of pre-K for lower-income kids.
“The data show things like they have more education, they are more likely to graduate high school, they are less likely to be a juvenile delinquent, have less teenage pregnancy, have better lifetime earnings,” Peisner-Feinberg said.
This is great news for the children and their families who have found a spot in their district pre-K, and it shows the state is on the right track in addressing the educational disparities highlighted in the Leandro case. But many close to the case agree that funding limited access to NC Pre-K doesn’t allow every child to receive that “sound, basic” education.
“Education is the keystone to civil rights,” said Dorosin, explaining why the UNC Civil Rights Center prioritizes work on this case. “Education is the key to being able to access political rights, experience economic equality, access good jobs and other resources. Being able to expand and mine that constitutional guarantee gives us an opportunity to address the entrenched discrimination that creates these iniquities in schools.”
Dorosin said that his group is assessing next steps, and that the next challenge to the state could come from a more local level, or even from a new case.
Ensuring access to equal education is a task that falls to everyone. Reach out to your schools and ask if you can support their programs with donations of supplies and time, and in 2014, as state Supreme Court Justices run for re-election, explore their positions. Knowing where Supreme Court justices stand on the issues is key in casting an informed vote.