RALEIGH — Gov. Bev Perdue announced an additional 2,000 spots for children in the state's pre-kindergarten program Wednesday - the latest move in her confrontation with the legislature over preparing at-risk 4-year-olds for school.
"I'm sure there will be a gnashing and grinding of teeth, but at the end of the day, regardless of what (legislators') reaction is, there will be 2,000 children who by Aug. 15 will have the preparation they need to start kindergarten prepared," the governor said, speaking at Happy Face Preschool in Raleigh. "That's a fight worth having."
Perdue will create the slots using $9.3 million in federal child care subsidy money that has so far gone unused this year.
She spoke from an empty classroom at the five-star preschool, which has space for 82 but now enrolls 51. The school has a certified teacher ready to start and could add slots within a couple of weeks. Children will begin to be enrolled across the state in mid-March and will attend the program until they start kindergarten in August.
Republicans in the GOP-led legislature were quick to balk at Perdue's action. Rep. Justin Burr, an Albemarle Republican, called it "a political stunt." He said the federal subsidy money was already in the budget and that moving it into pre-K programs is merely a shell game.
"I guess I'm glad that she finally read the budget and realized that this money has been sitting there," said Burr, who co-chairs a House committee on early childhood.
He said Perdue's administration had previously left federal child care subsidy dollars on the table, and his committee had recently suggested that the money be used for education.
Perdue's decision drew a positive reaction from Democratic U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who issued a statement praising her and criticizing state lawmakers.
"While the Governor has been a tireless advocate for fully funding early childhood education, her commitment has not been matched by the legislature, which slashed budgets last year leaving thousands of children with fewer educational opportunities," Duncan's statement said. "The benefits of early childhood education pay dividends for years and it is one of the best investments we can make."
An estimated 67,000 at-risk 4-year-olds qualify for the N.C. Pre-Kindergarten program, formerly known as More at Four. Currently, about 24,700 children are enrolled, down from 32,000 in 2010-11. A Wake County Superior Court judge overseeing the state's long-running school finance case has ruled that the state cannot deny poor children access to pre-K.
Wednesday's political back-and-forth was nothing new. But it does preview a coming battle over the definition of "at-risk" when it comes to how many children can get state pre-K.
A draft report of a House committee on early childhood education improvement recommends that "at-risk" be consistent with federal poverty guidelines, which would narrow the population eligible for pre-K in North Carolina.
"Our primary focus has been looking to make sure that we're helping those kids most at risk," Burr said.
Meeting next week
The committee will meet next week to finalize its report, but Perdue's office said the proposed change would cut out about one-third of the children who now qualify.
"A child from a family of four with a combined income of $22,351 a year would no longer be eligible for NC Pre-K services," said a statement by Perdue's press secretary, Chris Mackey. "That's bad for tens of thousands of families."
Rob Thompson, executive director of the Covenant with North Carolina's Children, a coalition that lobbies for children and families, said the state should put more, not fewer, children in pre-K programs.
"You're just going to have a lot of kids who aren't going to be as well prepared for school as they would have been before," Thompson said. "I think that's the exact opposite of what we need to be doing in this state."
Last summer, following cuts to the program by the Republican-led legislature, Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr. ruled that North Carolina cannot impose a cap that limits pre-K for low-income children. The ruling came after a hearing in the school funding lawsuit known as Leandro, in which poor counties sued the state. In the Leandro case, the state Supreme Court had ruled that all children in North Carolina have the constitutional right to a sound basic education.
Part of the state's response was the creation of a pre-kindergarten program for 4-year-olds.
After Manning's ruling, Perdue, a Democrat who is not running for re-election, had proposed a way to restore 6,300 slots for the program. The legislature did not act on her proposal.
Manning appeal filed
Republican lawmakers had criticized Manning's order as judicial activism that would create a massive welfare program in North Carolina.
An appeal of the judge's ruling was filed Wednesday by Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, who argued that the court overstepped its authority and that there is no constitutional right to pre-kindergarten services. Cooper wrote that there "is not, and could not be, an obligation to create and maintain a state-wide pre-kindergarten program in perpetuity that is judicially enforceable against the State."
Perdue did early morning exercises with the Raleigh 4-year-olds Wednesday. She watched them work puzzles and build with blocks. Teachers at Happy Face Preschool said the children there have learned the alphabet, numbers and social skills important for kindergarten.
Perdue said it is time to move ahead on the expansion of pre-K.
"It is singularly the most important thing that we can do to have children start school on a level playing field," she said.