It's not clear whether the order by Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr. could force the Legislature to redo part of the $19.7 billion state budget that took effect this month.
A spokesman for House Speaker Thom Tillis told ABC11 Monday that his office is working closely with the Attorney General's office to see what exactly Manning's ruling means, if it has any legal footing, if lawmakers will have to re-write the budget, or if they can appeal.
Manning said only that he's confident the state will live up to its constitutional duties to afford every child a good, basic education.
"It is the duty of the State of North Carolina to protect each and every one of these at-risk and defenseless children, and to provide them their lawful opportunity, through a quality pre-kindergarten program" guaranteed by the state constitution, Manning wrote.
Governor Beverly Perdue applauded the ruling. The budget was passed over her veto.
"The Republican legislature passed a budget that slashed pre-K programs by 20 percent. They imposed a co-pay of up to 10 percent of a family’s income. The General Assembly’s bad choices make it harder than ever for at-risk children to succeed - in school, in careers and in life. Now the Superior Court has called on them to reverse those choices," she said in a statement.
The state budget cuts funding by 20 percent for the program that for years was known as More At Four and requires parents to pay up to 10 percent of their income to participate. The budget also shifts the program from the state's education agency to the Department of Health and Human Services division that runs a voucher program that helps workers and students pay child care costs.
The new program, called NC Pre-Kindergarten, also limits the number of spots for at-risk youngsters to 20 percent, Manning said. Any barrier to enrolling at-risk 4-year-olds "may not be enforced," Manning said.
"If the present plan is implemented as set out in the budget bill, several thousand at-risk four-year-olds who are eligible to attend NCPK will not be provided with slots because of the limitations on their participation to 20 percent," Manning wrote.
More At Four defined at-risk children as those whose families earn below the statewide average, who have a disability or chronic health problem, come from a family that doesn't speak English at home, or have parents on active military duty.
Manning's order came after a court hearing sought by lawyers for low-wealth school districts in Hoke, Robeson, Vance, Halifax and Cumberland counties. They argued that the state budget passed over the veto of Gov. Beverly Perdue undercuts gains made since a landmark 1997 state Supreme Court decision.
The ruling in the Leandro case, named for one of its plaintiffs, said every child has a constitutional right to an education that allows them to compete for a job or higher education and to be a functional citizen.
Since then, state officials have been under court pressure to improve literacy and other measures of student performance, and to prepare 4-year-olds at risk of falling behind their peers before they enter kindergarten.
More At Four served about 31,000 children during the last academic year, but the funding cuts will mean about 4,000 fewer children can be enrolled, the DHHS director who will oversee the refashioned program has said.
About 260,000 of North Carolina's 630,000 children age four and younger are enrolled in state-regulated day-care or home-care facilities. More than 83,000 children receive subsidies to pay for the care.
Associated Press Reporter Emery P. Dalesio contributed to this report.