Point of View

Cutting Pre-K is a false savings

April 29, 2013 

For the second time in as many years, members of the North Carolina General Assembly are seeking to limit eligibility for N.C. Pre-K, North Carolina’s premier public pre-kindergarten program.

They want to restrict the program to the poorest children in our state, leaving thousands of low-income working families, who are currently eligible for N.C. Pre-K, unable to afford pre-kindergarten for their children. Pre-kindergarten, and education in general, is an investment in our future workforce that should be spread broadly across our state.

We know that our best shot at creating a prosperous and successful state is to ensure the healthy development of our children, and that’s exactly what NC Pre-K does.

Year after year, researchers at UNC’s Frank Porter Graham Institute find that children who participate in N.C. Pre-K finish the third grade with better math and reading skills than those who don’t participate in the program. N.C. Pre-K is a proven catalyst for success.

Currently, N.C. Pre-K serves over 29,000 at-risk 4-year-olds throughout North Carolina, most of whom are eligible because their families are low-income. These children receive a high-quality education in the best early education programs the state has to offer.

For instance, N.C. Pre-K classrooms are required to have a low student-to-staff ratio with a maximum class size of 18, and N.C. Pre-K teachers must meet strict education and licensing requirements and use preapproved curriculum. All of our kids deserve this type of high quality education.

A bill (HB 935) is working its way through the state House that would change the definition of “at-risk” and limit N.C. Pre-K eligibility to only families who fall below the poverty line (just over $19,000 for a family of three). More than one-third of current N.C. Pre-K enrollees (about 10,000 children) could be frozen out of N.C. Pre-K by this legislation. The vast majority of these families would not be able to afford pre-kindergarten on their own.

In Wake County, for instance, high quality pre-kindergarten costs in the neighborhood of $1,000 per month, which could amount to over half of some ineligible families’ annual budget. For those families, pre-kindergarten would be out of reach.

And it’s not just legislators seeking to restrict eligibility. In his proposed budget, Gov. Pat McCrory would also lower the eligibility threshold for N.C. Pre-K. While his proposal does not go as far as the pending legislation, it would still leave thousands of families with no pre-k options.

The likely motivation for the House Bill 935 and McCrory’s proposal is to avoid complying with the spirit of a recent court ruling.

Last fall, the state Court of Appeals upheld a district court ruling that mandates the state to provide N.C. Pre-K for any “at-risk” child who applies. Rather than comply with the ruling, legislators would simply redefine “at-risk.”

It’s a questionable legal strategy, but one that could provide them with a justification for serving only a certain segment of the current N.C. Pre-K population.

Legal matters aside, here’s what we know: We do better as a society when more children get a high-quality education.

Lower crime rates, higher incomes and healthier families are all products of a well- educated populace. Let’s do what’s best for all of us and maintain broad access to N.C. Pre-K.

Rob Thompson is the executive director of the Covenant with North Carolina’s Children.

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