New report says N.C. has lost its position as leader in Pre-K programs

Budget cuts harmed per-pupil spending, institute says

lbonner@newsobserver.com April 10, 2012 

North Carolina has slipped from its position as a national pre-kindergarten leader and appears headed for further decline, says the leader of a national research institute.

The state’s pre-kindergarten program for at-risk 4-year-olds once was one of only six state programs nationwide that met all the institute’s standards for quality. But enrollment and state spending on N.C. Pre-K have dropped, according to a report released Tuesday by the National Institute for Early Education Research.

When only state dollars are counted, North Carolina slipped from fourth in per-pupil pre-kindergarten spending 10 years ago to 11th last year, according to the report. Enrollment declined by 430 children between 2009-10 and last year. It dropped even more this year, though this year’s figures are not covered in the report.

“North Carolina has really lost its leadership position,” said Steven Barnett, the institute’s director.

Rep. Justin Burr, an Albemarle Republican who led an early education committee this year, disagreed with Barnett’s assessment that the pre-kindergarten program is suffering.

“The majority of the legislature is interested in making sure we continue to provide high-quality early childhood education and continue to be a model,” Burr said. “I’m confident we will continue to be as we move through these difficult economic times.”

High-quality pre-kindergarten is key to ensuring children are ready for school, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a conference call with reporters last week.

“It’s important to closing achievement gaps, leveling the playing field and giving every child the chance to be successful,” he said.

More changes are on the horizon for North Carolina. The legislature is appealing a ruling by Superior Court Judge Howard Manning that said the state cannot impose a cap that limits Pre-K for low-income children. The committee Burr led recommended the legislature consider changing eligibility requirements. Some child advocates fear those changes could further limit enrollment.

North Carolina has been committed to quality public education, from pre-kindergarten through college, said Rob Thompson, executive director of the Covenant with North Carolina’s Children. That commitment has eroded in recent years, he said.

“Because of budget cuts, we’re able to serve fewer in Pre-K than we have in the past,” he said. “That’s a simple measure to use when we think about what we’re doing.”

Pre-K was at the center of a heated political fight between Gov. Bev Perdue and the GOP-controlled legislature.

Budget cuts coupled with Manning’s ruling – which negated a legislative move to make some families pay part of their children’s Pre-K costs – resulted in an enrollment loss of more than 7,000 students – from 32,000 last year to about 24,700 this year, according to state figures. Perdue in February decided to use $9.3 million in federal childcare subsidy money to enroll an additional 2,000 children.

Burr said the legislature’s goal is to serve children who are most at risk, and that changes could result in more children getting into the Pre-K classes.

“We’re trying to put tools in place that continue to expand the quality and the opportunity for early childhood education through the Pre-K program,” he said.

Bonner: 919-829-4821

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