RALEIGH — North Carolina's legislative leaders appear to be engaged in a race to the bottom when it comes to early childhood education.
According to a draft report from the Early Childhood Education Improvement Committee, state House leadership is pushing a new policy that would drastically narrow eligibility for the NC Pre-K program. If the committee's goal is to limit 4-year-olds' access to education, then it should consider a name change.
Our best and only bet for the future is to ensure that children are prepared for the challenges ahead, and that's exactly what NC Pre-K does. Analysis from the Frank Porter Graham Institute of Child Development shows that children who participated in NC Pre-K show better math and reading skills in the third grade compared to children who did not participate.
The program works for our children, which means that we should embrace it and build upon it, not look for opportunities to whittle it away.
Currently, about 27,000 "at-risk" children are enrolled in NC Pre-K in both private child care facilities and in public schools. Approximately 40,000 additional children are eligible but not served. All of these children are eligible because they are considered "at-risk," which means that they meet at least one of the following criteria: their families earn less than 75 percent of the state median income ($50,975 for a family of four), they have a disability or their parents are active-duty military.
Unfortunately, the leadership of the House Early Childhood Education Improvement Committee is pursuing a change to the program's definition of "at-risk," so that only children from families earning less than the federal poverty line ($22,350 for a family of four) would be eligible. If this change were implemented, over 9,400 children currently enrolled in NC Pre-K would not meet the financial eligibility requirements for the program.
So why would the legislature consider such a draconian change?
The most likely answer is that legislators are looking to make an end-run around Judge Howard Manning's ruling that the state has a constitutional obligation to provide all "at-risk" 4-year-olds with pre-kindergarten. Rather than making an honest attempt to comply with the ruling, legislative leaders are seeking to redefine "at-risk."
In the end, however, this debate is less about complying with a court ruling and more about competing visions for our state's future: Do we want to provide the best possible education for the most children, or are we willing to accept shortcuts and mediocrity?
For me, the answer is simple: when it comes to our children, we can't afford to accept half-measures. Fortunately, the proposed eligibility restrictions haven't yet been approved by the full legislature, so there's still time to chart a different course. While legislators consider their next steps, it's our job as concerned citizens and adults to stand up for North Carolina's children.
Rob Thompson is executive director of the Covenant with North Carolina's Children.