State’s Pre-K program wins praise, but lost funding and slots last year

lbonner@newsobserver.com April 29, 2013 

North Carolina had one of the best pre-kindergarten programs in the country in 2011-12, but it also experienced one of the nation’s biggest drops in enrollment, according to a report released Monday.

Nationally, state funding for preschool dropped by $548 million in 2011-12 compared with the previous year, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. Adjusted for inflation, it was the largest one-year drop on record.

The budget for N.C. Pre-K was cut 20 percent and enrollment dropped 19 percent, the report states. By percentage, the enrollment reduction was the largest in the country.

It’s likely the program will face more changes. Gov. Pat McCrory has proposed budget increases to add more students to the program but wants to tighten eligibility based on family income.

The income ceiling now is at about 200 percent of the federal poverty level, but McCrory proposes to drop it to 130 percent. His budget would pay for an additional 5,000 slots.

“The rationale for the change is that it meets the law and will fund additional seats,” McCrory spokeswoman Kim Genardo said in an email.

House members have filed a bill setting the income threshold lower, at 100 percent of poverty. This year, the federal poverty level is $19,530 for a family of three.

Rob Thompson, executive director of the Covenant with North Carolina’s Children, said the state goal should be making sure all 4-year-olds attend pre-kindergarten.

Good preschool classes are important to the state’s goal of having all children reading at grade level by the end of third grade, he said.

“This is an investment North Carolina should make in its future workforce,” he said. “It’s an investment that’s going to benefit all of us going forward. I don’t like the idea of limiting it to a certain group of folks. I think we should set it as broadly as we can.”

N.C. Pre-K, called More at Four when former Gov. Mike Easley started it in 2001, intends to help children considered at risk of failing prepare for school.

The legislature cut the budget and changed eligibility requirements in 2011, capping participation by poor children at 20 percent and requiring some families to pay part of the cost. The changes resulted in a long fight between Republican legislative leaders and former Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat.

Legislators said the cap was unintended, the result of a poorly written budget provision.

Poor school districts sued, and Wake Superior Court Judge Howard Manning said the state could not erect barriers to enrollment by at-risk children.

Perdue pumped $9.3 million into the program in February 2012 and $20 million in late 2012 to add more spaces.

North Carolina was one of only four states to have all 10 elements of a quality program set by the institute, which include curriculum standards, bachelor’s degrees required for teachers, and class sizes capped at 20.

Bonner: 919-829-4821

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