Durham educators propose new pre-K plan

$50 million price tag prompts ‘sticker shock’

CorrespondentSeptember 8, 2012 


Incoming Durham Public Schools superintendent Eric Becoats (cq) listens to his introduction during a Wednesday afternoon reception at the Durham Public Schools staff development center in Durham. Becoats, 43, will become the next Durham Public Schools superintendent on July 1, 2010. Over 120 Durham schools staff, school board members, along with Durham city and county officials and local activists got to meet Becoats at his reception Wednesday late afternoon. HARRY LYNCH - hlynch@newsobserver.com

HARRY LYNCH — HARRY LYNCH - hlynch@newsobserve

The question: What would it take to deliver quality pre-kindergarten services to all Durham 4-year-olds who come from low-income families?

The answer: More than $50 million over the first five years.

That’s according to a new proposal that would expand Durham pre-kindergarten seats from 700 to 2,000 in five years.

Durham Public Schools Superintendent Eric Becoats and Durham's Partnership for Children Executive Director Laura Benson presented the plan to the Durham County Board of Commissioners last week.

“This is a grassroots vision that emerged from the groundswell of interest and commitment to pre-K,” Becoats said about the plan.

Becoats said the vision addresses various goals in the city and the county’s strategic plans, including quality education, creating a strong and diverse economy and a well-trained community work force. Strong Pre-K programs are an important part of meeting those goals, Becoats said.

“We know early education is directly linked or tied to graduation from high school,” he said.

The $50.3 million price tag, though, came as a blow to county leaders, who expressed concern about the idea of investing tax dollars in the expensive program.

“I have some sticker shock here,” said Commissioner Vice Chair Ellen Reckhow.

Reckhow suggested exploring other models around the state, reviewing DPS’s current use of Title 1 funding, and adding an assessment component to current pre-K programs.

“If we are asking the community to invest millions of their dollars, or whatever other groups, we have to show that it is effective,” Reckhow said.

Reckhow also suggested that commissioners ask the state legislature for more pre-K funding.

Education officials said that quality pre-k programs are key to low-income children’s success in school. About half of Durham’s 4,000 4-year-olds qualify for free or reduced lunch, they said.

The plan calls for creating 260 pre-k spots and 17 classes each year over a five-year period. Becoats said they hope to use various community resources, from DPS and other publically funded programs to private childcare facilities, to fill the void.

Classroom expansion isn’t included in the estimated program cost, but the $50.3 million price tag does include:

• A cumulative cost of adding 260 spots annually at $12,000 per student per year

• A startup cost of $15,000 per new class and 17 classes per year

• Professional development

• Bilingual support, accountability and evaluation

Funding for the plan, Benson said, could be identified by evaluating current funding streams, identifying new ones, and pulling together a range of community partners. For example, one source could include Title 1 funds, federal financial assistance to districts and schools with high numbers of children from low-income families

“I envision the fact that because this question and these sets of questions have come to us from so many facets of the community, that we will be able to generate some investment both from the public and private sector,” Benson said. “We also come prepared to help you think about additional sales tax revenue that might not be allocated.”

Commissioner Pam Karriker echoed Reckhow’s “sticker shock” and expressed concern about spending $12,000 on each pre-kindergartner – four times what is spent on regular public school students.

Karriker looked up high-quality private schools that offer pre-K, she said.

“It’s anywhere from $7,500 to $12,000,” Karriker said. “I have a concern that rich families and lower income families will have access to pre-K, but the families who don’t qualify either way are going to be paying large amounts of money (in taxes) without access.”

Karriker also suggested an effort to increase community engagement and understanding of the significance of a child’s brain development before 4.

County Manager Mike Ruffin pointed out that parents of K-12 students may be concerned about the public money funding the plan when they feel like their child’s needs aren’t being met.

“That certainly could greatly complicate your strategy,” Ruffin said. “You have a great challenge ahead of you.”

Becoats responded that it isn’t “us against them” but “our challenge as a community.”

Robin McCoy, a DPS spokeswoman, described in an email the plan as a starting point for the pre-k expansion.

“Community input will further shape and solidify the vision,” she wrote.

Bridges: 919-564-9330

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