(RALEIGH) -- The state Attorney General’s office filed an appeal to a recent court ruling impacting early education programs while legislative leaders warned that a related executive order from Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue could cost North Carolina as much as $360 million.
The appeal sets up another round in the long-running legal challenge over the state’s responsibility to provide a sound, basic education to every child. Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning struck down a funding formula that limited enrollment of at-risk students in the North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten Program, formerly known as More at Four. Manning also ruled against a state budget provision that allowed the state to charge parents a co-payment.
Perdue used Manning’s decision to justify her executive order directing state agencies to accept all at-risk 4-year-olds in the program without specifying how to cover the additional expense. Republican lawmakers said the issue needs further clarification in court.
“It’s clear Gov. Perdue is acting unconstitutionally by creating a universal, $360 million Pre-K entitlement that would bust the state’s budget and endanger our AAA credit rating,” Senate president Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said in a prepared statement. “The attorney general’s office did the right thing today by preserving the state’s right to appeal.”
The cost of enrolling as many as 45,000 additional children in the pre-kindergarten program range from $145-360 million, according to estimates from the General Assembly’s nonpartisan Fiscal Research Division.
“The consequence of the Gov. Perdue’s interpretation of the court’s order is a mandate to appropriate additional funds by the executive and judicial branches, violating Article V Section 7 of the North Carolina Constitution,” Jim Blaine, Berger’s chief of staff, wrote in a memo to Senate Republican.
Perdue spokeswoman Chris Mackey said the actual price tag is closer to $45 million. “They assume that every at-risk child will apply to be in the program,” she added. “That hasn’t been the case in the past and we have no reason to believe that will be the case now.”
Mackey acknowledged concerns raised by GOP leaders that it’s unlikely schools could hire enough teachers and find enough space to fully comply with Perdue’s order in time for the start of the school year. However, Mackey said the governor will continue working on implementing the changes, as long as Manning’s order remains in effect.
Blaine’s memo to Senate Republicans also took a jab a Perdue while attempting to answer some “frequently asked questions.”
“Can we reserve and fund a NC Pre-K/daycare slot for Governor Perdue and require Wake County Truancy officers to assure she is attending?,” Blaine wrote. “While we appreciate the sentiment, we believe the slots should go to children that can benefit from them. However, we are checking to see if we can fund an additional slot in a Smart Start facility that serves 2-year-olds.
“Are we serious about that? Not yet,” he concluded.