North Carolina's Supreme Court said Friday an appeal of a complaint involving changes to a pre-kindergarten program for needy children is moot because lawmakers have fixed the problem.
It's the latest chapter in a 19-year-old dispute brought by poor school districts in Hoke, Halifax, Robeson, Cumberland and Vance counties.
The state Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that the constitutional right to a sound, basic education includes helping young children who are at risk of falling behind their peers. Then-Gov. Mike Easley and legislative leaders committed to a program of pre-kindergarten services then named More at Four and told the court it would be gradually expanded to enroll 40,000 4-year-olds statewide at a cost of about $160 million.
But in 2011, new Republican majorities in the General Assembly effectively limited the program they renamed North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten by restricting the number of slots for at-risk 4-year-olds and cutting funding by 20 percent.
NC Pre-K enrolled about 25,000 children in 2012, down from a peak of about 35,000 in 2010. A September 2012 survey found that nearly 12,000 children were waiting for Pre-K services.
Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr., selected by the Supreme Court to oversee compliance with its earlier school-funding decisions, ruled in 2011 that state officials could not create barriers that would deny an eligible child admission where a program exists. Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper, representing the General Assembly, appealed.
But while the case was pending, state lawmakers in 2012 "amended the challenged statutory provisions" and that "rendered this controversy moot," the Supreme Court said.
"We conclude that the questions originally in controversy between the parties are no longer at issue... We express no opinion on the legislation now in effect because questions of its constitutionality are not before us," the ruling said.
Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, praised the ruling.
"Today's Supreme Court decision is a clear affirmation of the General Assembly's central role in shaping education policy - and the size and scope of North Carolina's pre-K program. The court's ruling ensures the pre-K program will move forward as the legislature intended - with eight out of 10 pre-K slots serving children who are financially 'at risk,'" he said.
Melanie Black Dubis, an attorney for the poor school districts, said she was surprised by the quick ruling, which came less than four weeks after oral arguments.
She pointed to Friday's affirmation in the six-page ruling by the justices of the court's two previous school funding rulings. The second ruling in 2004 affirmed the constitutional right for every child to receive the opportunity for a sound, basic education, especially young children at-risk of falling behind.
With Friday's ruling, which had no dissenting opinions, "that mandate is still in full force and effect," Dubis said.
She added the dismissal of the state's appeal is just a recognition by the justices that during the appeal "the state recognized its unconstitutional conduct and reversed its unconstitutional conduct."
Rob Thompson, executive director of Covenant with NC's Children, said the ruling was disappointing, and that General Assembly still has a responsibility to invest in early education.
"While the court's decision is disappointing, it doesn't absolve legislators from their responsibility to do what's best for the state and invest in the education of young children. We know that early education works and we know that NC Pre-k works," he said.