The state's high court heard arguments Tuesday from attorneys in the latest chapter in a 19-year-old dispute brought by five poor school districts. It's a high-profile battle with big dollar implications. One estimate puts the cost of expanding the program to all eligible 4-year-olds at up to $300 million a year.
One of the interested spectators at Tuesday's hearing was former North Carolina Governor Mike Easley - who championed early education while he was in office.
"I'm passionate about every four year old having a chance. It's not just about the economy and having an education. This is a chance for every child to reach their God-given potential. And it is our responsibility as citizens and as people to stand up for the least of these," he told reporters.
Lawyers for the state argue that a court mandate that North Carolina provide pre-K to all four year olds is flawed because the original case only applied to Hoke County.
"Before you, pursuant to the appellate rules, is the question of were there errors of law on the decision made by the court of appeals? And the state maintains there certainly were," argued John Maddrey.
Maddrey said it's a goal to enroll needy 4-year-olds in the program to help them get ready for kindergarten, but it isn't legally binding.
"Mr. Maddrey's argument, taken to its logical conclusion, would require that we have 114 additional trials for every other school district in the state before any student outside of Hoke County would be entitled to a remedy," offered opposing counsel Melanie Dubis.
The Republican led General Assembly has cut back on pre-K funding. A lawyer for the State Board of Education says the program is the only solution officials have offered to fix a constitutional violation nine years after a previous Supreme Court ruling.
North Carolina's constitution gives every child the right to a sound, basic education. The Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that includes helping children who are at risk of falling behind their peers with services getting them ready for kindergarten.
Associated Press reporter Emery P. Dalesio contributed to this report.