Private pre-kindergarten idea dropped

Qualifying still unresolved

lbonner@newsobserver.comMarch 2, 2012 

A legislative committee on Thursday backed away from a controversial proposal to fully privatize state-funded preschool after a public outcry and protests from local school officials.

Rep. Rosa Gill recommended a change, which the committee adopted, that says pre-kindergarten classes will be located in a variety of settings, including private child care centers and public schools.

"My interest was to allow all providers to have the opportunity to serve kids, based on need, their capacity and the quality of their programs," said Gill, a Raleigh Democrat.

A little more than half the students in prekindergarten are in public school programs.

The effort to restrict prekindergarten to private settings was launched after private providers told legislators that school districts that run the program favor their own classrooms over child care centers.

Kevin Campbell, a child care center operator from Mecklenburg County, said the change contradicts the proposal's original intent, but the playing field could still be fair if conflict of interest was closely monitored.

Children's advocacy groups were pleased with the changes.

"They reaffirmed the value of the pre-K program," said Stephanie Fanjul, president of the N.C. Partnership for Children. "They reaffirmed a commitment to early literacy."

The House Early Childhood Education Committee drastically altered its proposal so that it is no longer a piece of legislation, but a list of recommendations. The report does little to resolve the issue of how children will qualify for the program.

The legislature, the courts and Gov. Bev Perdue have battled over N.C. Pre-K since last year, when the legislature changed eligibility requirements. About 24,700 children are enrolled in N.C. Pre-K, down from 32,000 last year. An estimated 67,000 4-year-olds qualify for the program, which used to be called More at Four. A Wake Superior Court judge ruled that the state cannot impose a cap that keeps low-income children from enrolling.

The House committee circulated a proposed bill this month that would have limited eligibility, based on income, to children who come from families at or below the federal poverty line, which is $23,050 a year for a family of four.

Currently, children whose families have nearly double that yearly income are eligible for prekindergarten.

Though the draft no longer explicitly recommends the 100 percent poverty-level cap, it leans in that direction, noting that the state has more than 30,000 children living in families whose incomes are at or below the poverty line.

Ann McColl, lobbyist for the state Department of Public Instruction, said setting too low an income standard would shut out thousands of children who need prekindergarten.

Bonner: 919-829-4821

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