RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- Thousands of North Carolina parents are wondering whether their 4-year-olds will attend pre-kindergarten this year because there is no money to pay for the schooling despite a judge's ruling that all needy families should have access to it.
The state's top two legislative leaders, both Republicans, asked a judge this week if his ruling last month meant the state had to expand to serve all of the estimated 67,000 children eligible. The Republicans, who estimate the cost of an expansion at up to $360 million, say they don't think that was the judge's intention.
Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue issued an executive order last week telling state agencies to figure out how to broaden the program called North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten to reach all qualifying 4-year-olds. Neither Perdue nor Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr. described how the state would pay to expand services that last year taught 32,000 children.
Any barrier to enrolling at-risk 4-year-olds "may not be enforced," Manning said.
The conflicting directions from the three branches of government are frustrating parents like Stephanie Grimes, 38, of Winston-Salem.
Grimes was told last winter her 4-year-old qualified based on income for a slot in Forsyth County's program, only to see that opportunity wiped out when the General Assembly cut funding by 20 percent in July. Now she's on a waiting list because more than 900 families applied for the 569 funded slots. Grimes said she thought after Perdue's executive order last week that her child would be guaranteed a classroom spot.
"It doesn't make sense. I don't think she should say that there's going to be a program if she honestly doesn't have the ability to provide it," Grimes said Tuesday. "If you're eligible you should be accepted. But you can't be accepted if there's no money, so it's really not a true statement."
Perdue has said the Legislature, in Republican control this year for the first time in more than a century, should come up with additional money to serve every eligible child if existing funds fall short. The state budget that took effect last month cut funding for the program by 20 percent and required parents to pay up to 10 percent of their income to participate. Manning said the revamped program also limited the number of spots for at-risk youngsters to 20 percent.
A memo from the chief of staff for the Senate Republican leadership states that expanding the program could cost the state between $145 million and $360 million, depending how many additional children are served and how much local governments need to spend. The memo, obtained by The Associated Press on Tuesday, attributes the estimate to nonpartisan legislative fiscal analysts.
North Carolina officials have been under court pressure for a decade to help prepare 4-year-olds at risk of falling behind their peers and pointed to the state program as satisfying the court's demands. At-risk children are those whose families earn below the statewide average, or those who have disabilities or chronic health problems, come from families that don't speak English at home or have parents on active military duty.
In Dare County, where Perdue talked Monday about serving all at-risk 4-year-olds, at least four parents called Tuesday seeking information for their children, said Judi Hornbeck, elementary instruction director for the county school system. Five other parents had called since Perdue's order last week, she said.
Parents have submitted 160 applications for 126 slots in the state's pre-kindergarten program, a 14 percent increase over last year, and more are adding to the waiting list, Hornbeck said.
"We're ready to do whatever Gov. Perdue tells us to do," she said.
State House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, and Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said a motion they filed Monday asking Manning to clarify his ruling required them to hire outside attorneys because Attorney General Roy Cooper's office would not do it. Nonetheless, Cooper's office was expected to file an appeal of Manning's order by a Wednesday deadline, legislative leaders said.
Spokesmen for Cooper, Tillis and Berger did not respond to questions Tuesday. The contract with the private lawyers provides for more than $500 per hour in fees but does not offer an estimate of the hours that will be worked.