Let's get the label right. North Carolina's attempts to provide state-funded pre-school chances for at-risk kids don't represent a social welfare program or a giveaway or a wanton waste of taxpayers dollars. The pre-K program, which gives poor children and others who need extra help a chance to start school on better footing, thus improving their chances throughout high school and beyond, is an investment. Pure and simple, that's it.
Studies from UNC-Chapel Hill and other institutions, including the federal government, have shown that pre-school programs are of value. Head Start, the spectacular success on the federal level, and Smart Start, Gov. Jim Hunt's early childhood initiative, along with many other programs in other states, have worked.
Studies have shown that at-risk kids who went through these programs, giving them a leg up on reading and other skills, did better in school. Intervention at an early age makes a difference, period. That means their chances of going to college are better, their chances at good employment are improved and by the way, their chances of becoming productive, tax-paying, contributing citizens of North Carolina are more sound. There's the dividend. From the investment.
The More at Four program, a pre-K initiative started by former Gov. Mike Easley, was a good idea renamed and barely kept going by a shortsighted Republican majority in the General Assembly.
Perdue steps in
The pre-K program that exists in its stead is a good one, but woefully short of funding in terms of covering all eligible children. That's a disgrace, and according to Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning, it's also illegal.
Manning, the judge overseeing educational improvements in poor school districts that resulted from a lawsuit by some of those districts, already has said the state cannot impose a cap that limits access to pre-K programs for poor children. He is a respected jurist who happens to be a Republican. And he has shown no indication of backing down, having been consistent in his decisions through the years as the results of that suit have unfolded.
Gov. Beverly Perdue, emboldened perhaps by her decision not to seek re-election, now has taken strong action to help the low-income children of this state. It is an admirable step, even a courageous one. She has assigned $9.3 million in unspent federal child care subsidy money to create 2,000 more slots in the state's pre-K program.
Unfortunately, of the 67,000 children who qualify for the program under state guidelines, only 24,700 are currently enrolled. Having 2,000 more children in a program that will improve their lives, and North Carolina's future, is good.
Much more to do
But it's not nearly enough. The state needs to fund the remaining slots, and Republicans need to forget their disgraceful intent to narrow the definition of "at-risk" so they can cut more children out of the program. They'd lower the family income level whereby eligibility is determined, thus kicking more kids to the curb.
As for partisan claims by some that the governor has pulled a political stunt here, who cares? Republicans have slammed virtually all Democratic programs, including this one. The notion that they would have done something to help these kids has no credibility based on their record.
Demographic forecasts predict increasing numbers of minority kids (who tend to be more "at risk") will be coming into the population in the future. This type of program must be strengthened, not weakened. It must be expanded, not shrunk. It must be fully funded, not shortchanged.
That's not simply the compassionate thing to do. As evidenced by the clear success of early childhood education programs, it's also the smart thing to do.