Lightfoot no longer taking N.C. Pre-K job

cjarvis@newsobserver.comFebruary 7, 2013 

Dianna Lightfoot

  • What’s next for N.C. Pre-K?

    Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos’ office had no information about what the next step might be in filling one of the department’s most important divisions. Besides pre-kindergarten programs, the Childhood Development and Early Education division also regulates day-care facilities, among other functions.

    In 2011, the General Assembly transferred the More at Four pre-kindergarten program to that division and renamed it N.C. Pre-K. Its function is to make sure that all eligible 4-year-olds are ready for elementary school.

    The current state appropriation for N.C. Pre-K is $128 million, with a one-time $20 million added in October. That’s just a sliver of the department’s total operating budget of $18 billion . N.C. Pre-K doesn’t receive any federal money.

    There are nearly 25,000 children enrolled in the program for 2012-13, with another 5,000 estimated to be added. In September, N.C. Pre-K had a waiting list of nearly 12,000 children.

    Staff writer Craig Jarvis

— The state’s health and human services agency is scrambling to find a director for its children’s division after the new administration’s first choice abruptly withdrew Thursday amid questions about her commitment to pre-kindergarten programs and criticism of her hotly worded online postings.

Dianna Lightfoot was supposed to start work next week as director of childhood development and early education in the state Department of Health and Human Services. Secretary Aldona Wos announced the hire on Tuesday, praising her as a “strategic and tactical top tier executive with extensive health care, child welfare and education expertise.”

But child care advocates and others began questioning the appointment Wednesday after learning that Lightfoot had co-authored a policy statement posted online for the National Physicians Center for Family Resources, a conservative advocacy group that she founded.

The statement expresses concern about “the psycho-social impact” of early childhood programs – the kind of programs Lightfoot would have overseen at DHHS. It says they could lead to “an entitlement mentality” and make some parents less responsible. It also says the demand for child care is overstated.

Lightfoot deleted her Twitter account Wednesday afternoon, but not before critics had copied many of the messages she posted over the past two years. In a July 2011 tweet, referring to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, she wrote: “Between hilary and the other butch bunch obama anointed it’s great to finally see 2 with intelligence depth AND femininity.” “Butch” is a derogatory reference to lesbians.

Another tweet referred to a vaccination as “government intervention.” On Facebook, Lightfoot praised Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback for taking a stand against “shariah law,” and complained that “too many Americans seem to have fallen into a politically correct stupor.”

This is not the first time that Lightfoot has been caught in political crosswinds: Her nonprofit advocacy group has been criticized for “distorting” scientific information.

Questions began rolling into the offices of Wos and Gov. Pat McCrory on Wednesday; by midday Thursday DHHS announced that Lightfoot was not taking the job. The department said Lightfoot had notified Wos on Thursday morning “that she does not wish to be a distraction to the department and will pursue other opportunities.”

Wos accepted the decision, the statement said. Lightfoot would have made $110,000 annually.

No comment from Wos

Wos’ office declined to make the secretary available for an interview or provide further information about how well Lightfoot had been vetted, or to discuss whether her hiring signaled a weakening of North Carolina’s support for pre-kindergarten and early childhood education programs. Republican legislators tried to cut funding for the program last session, but a Superior Court judge ruled that the state could not deny access to the program for at-risk 4-year-olds.

There was no comment on the controversy from the governor’s office, other than references to McCrory’s past statements. During his campaign for governor, McCrory said the pre-K concept had been proven but made no promises about funding. He said it should be more closely tied to the kindergarten-through-high school system.

Rob Thompson, executive director of the Covenant with North Carolina Children, a group of advocacy organizations and service providers, said he would withhold judgment on what the DHHS move might mean.

“We’ve been encouraged by some of the governor’s comments in the past,” Thompson said. “We’re excited to work with him on early education. We think it’s extremely important for whoever is running that division to have a very strong commitment to the value of early childhood education.”

Organization criticized

Lightfoot, 61, apparently lives in Winston-Salem – at least that’s where she is registered to vote. However, the address on her voter registration belongs to a UPS mail drop outlet. Voters are required to provide their physical address, unless they live in rural areas without mail delivery. State Board of Elections records show Lightfoot voted three times last year.

The UPS address also is listed on the National Physicians Center for Family Resources website as the North Carolina office. She incorporated the nonprofit organization in Alabama in 1999 to advocate for family issues from a conservative point of view. It has a board of directors from around the country.

In 2005, Lightfoot’s organization came under criticism for content promoting abstinence for teenagers that it provided under a $46,000 federal contract to a government website. It advised teens to wait for a “mutually faithful marriage to an uninfected partner” as the “healthiest choice,” several newspapers reported.

Lightfoot told The Los Angeles Times at the time it was intended to reflect President George W. Bush’s belief that abstinence was the healthiest choice, and there was already plenty of information about contraception readily available.

But U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, said the website was “guided by ideology, not a commitment to providing parents and teens reliable information about sex.” According to The Washington Post, the nonprofit group also promoted a study by a board member suggesting a link between abortion and breast cancer, which has not proved true.

Adviser to Bush White House

Lightfoot lived for many years in Alabama, and in 1997 was a candidate to run that state’s welfare agency. She also served as chairwoman of a county department of human services board. She reports having a master’s degree in psychology and community relations, a counseling license and a secondary teaching credential.

She was chief adviser to the Bush White House’s Adolescent Health Initiative, and served on other national boards tied to federal government policy on families and children, according to her biography on the Palmetto Liberty political action committee website, a conservative fundraising group in South Carolina where she serves on the board.

Lightfoot also is a member of the Adult Care Home Community Advisory Committee in Forsyth County.

She could not be reached for comment Thursday. But Dr. John Whiffen, a longtime associate who lives in the Los Angeles area, praised Lightfoot. Whiffen is the chairman of her small nonprofit group’s board of directors, and has worked with her since 2001.

“She has dedicated her life to a lot of these different issues we’ve been involved in, out of a strong belief that these are important things that need to be addressed in our society,” Whiffen said. “She is extremely intelligent, hardworking, diligent at what she does.

“She’s produced a lot of resources for parents in trying to help bring kids through the tumultuous teenage years,” Whiffen said. “I couldn’t speak more highly of anyone I know.”

Jarvis: 919-829-4576

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