Gov. Perdue finds $20 million to expand Pre-K program

‘Projected unspent funds’ from DHHS to expand program

lbonner@newsobserver.comOctober 18, 2012 

Gov. Bev Perdue will put an additional $20 million into the state preschool program, allowing 6,300 more children to enroll.

About 1,000 children will be able to enroll immediately, her office said Thursday. The rest will find space in classrooms before the end of the year.

A statement from Perdue’s office said she identified $20 million in “projected unspent funds” in the state Department of Health and Human Services budget to pay for the expansion.

While advocates for early childhood education applauded the announcement, a legislative budget writer said Perdue was undermining the legislature’s ability to pay future Medicaid bills. Legislators had to scrape together money this year to plug budget holes in the government health insurance program for the elderly, poor and disabled.

DHHS has not determined precisely which divisions or programs will lose money to N.C. Pre-K, a Perdue spokesman said, but the reductions are not expected to require cuts in health services.

Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Cary Republican and key budget writer, said Perdue is “chasing headlines” and should not add money to the preschool program without telling legislators how she’s paying for it. “She needs to lay out for the General Assembly and the public where she is looking to achieve these savings,” he said. Perdue, who is not running for re-election, will leave office before the next round of budget-writing begins next year.

This is the second time this year Perdue has moved money into N.C. Pre-K. In February, she used $9.3 million in federal child care subsidy money to pay for 2,000 additional spaces. Advocates of early childhood education cheered the move to enroll more children in N.C. Pre-K. Nearly 25,000 children are currently enrolled, down from 32,000 two years ago.

“Governor Perdue’s decision means that over 6,000 more children will enter kindergarten better prepared to succeed in school and in life,” Rob Thompson, executive director of the Covenant with North Carolina’s Children, said in a statement. “We hope that the legislature will extend funding for these slots when it reconvenes in January.”

Perdue, a Democrat, fought for two years with the Republican-led legislature over money for the program for 4-year-olds at risk of failing in school. Legislators cut the program’s budget 20 percent, and in the 2011 budget appeared to limit enrollment of at-risk children and required some parents to help pay for it. The parent co-pays never kicked in, and legislators said the budget provision imposing enrollment limits was poorly worded. But a Wake County Superior Court judge overseeing the state’s long-running school finance case said the state cannot deny poor children access to pre-kindergarten.

The legislature appealed the judge’s decision, but it was upheld in a unanimous Appeals Court decision. Legislators have asked the state Supreme Court to review it, but the court hasn’t indicated whether it will.

“Until every at-risk child who wants to be in N.C. Pre-K is enrolled, the state hasn’t done enough,” Perdue said in a statement. “But today at least we are making progress towards fulfilling our legal – and moral – obligation to our children.”

Bonner: 919-829-4821

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