A constitutional right to pre-kindergarten?

In a potential preview of what’s to come in Washington, South Carolina’s Supreme Court recently heard arguments over the state’s responsibility to provide pre-kindergarten as part of a basic education.

There, as here, it’s a constitutional question. Both state’s constitutions (SC/WA) explicitly define education for all children as a state responsibility. At issue is exactly how far that responsibility goes – not only a legal question, but by extension also a (big) funding question.

Here’s a rundown of the current situation in both states:

In S. Carolina, the lower court decision now under appeal to the state Supreme Court found the Legislature has a constitutional duty to fund effective early intervention programs to ensure low-income children have the same opportunity to learn as their more advantaged peers.

One local paper there is calling for the justices to “direct the General Assembly to provide high-quality pre-kindergarten programs for all at-risk children in our state.”

Here in Washington, a pending lawsuit by a coalition of teachers, parents, community groups and school districts in Washington addresses early learning by alleging (in part) that:

(Paragraph 66) The State fails to provide, among other things, all the kindergarten readiness necessary to provide all children residing in our State with the basic education mandated by Article IX, s1 of our State Constitution.

(Paragraph 98) The funds provided by the Respondent State do not fully pay for, among other things, kindergarten readiness necessary to provide all children residing in our State with the basic education mandated by Article IX, s1 of our State Constitution.

Between 1980 and 2000, Washington K-12 per capita expenditures were above (in some years, well above) the national average in inflation-adjusted dollars. Since then, funding has been basically level. The state now ranks 38th in spending according to the U.S. Census Bureau, thanks at least in part to a funding system that one newspaper says “has been called antiquated, outdated, ossified. Even Byzantine.”

One other shoe may yet drop when the basic education finance task force presents its final report to legislators this December, which will:

“Review the definition of basic education and all current basic education funding formulas” and “develop options for a new funding structure and all the necessary formulas, and propose a new definition of basic education.”

It’s not known whether or how the report will incorporate recommendations for improving school readiness, though task force members have certainly heard about the need for it.

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