Pre-K education for four-year-olds isn't kid stuff

April 30, 2013 

Oh, there are likely a few people in North Carolina politics who might still argue whether pre-kindergarten education is important and produces results, but that number of the cantankerous is dwindling. Gov. Pat McCrory clearly must believe in the results pre-K education produces, as he’s proposed budget increases to cover more spots in the publicly-sponsored programs in the state.

Unfortunately, the governor has coupled that with a proposal to toughen eligibility by lowering the income ceiling for family eligibility to 130 percent of the federal poverty level (now $19,530 for a family of three is the current poverty figure). Eligibility now is about 200 percent of that figure. Republicans in the state House want the eligibility ceiling to be lower, 100 percent of the poverty level.

Critics of that proposal say it will reduce the number of eligible “at-risk” children from 60,000 to about half that. The maneuver is likely aimed at complying with a court ruling that said the state could not deny pre-K to any at-risk child, because as it happens, the program now enrolls about half or fewer of the children who meet current eligibility standards.

The ideas from the governor and the House would, in effect, change the definition of at-risk to include fewer children at a time when the state needs to be reaching all those currently eligible.

Of course, in 2011, GOP legislators cut the budget for N.C. Pre-K and changed eligibility, capping poor children at 20 percent of enrollment and forcing some families to pay part of the cost. But that court ruling and the determination of former Gov. Beverly Perdue, who found money to put into the program twice in 2012, helped more children.

North Carolina retains a high unemployment rate (over 9 percent) and pockets of poverty, particularly in more rural areas and in towns that have been severely hurt by the loss of manufacturing jobs.

How does pre-K help with all that? By giving the children of poor and lower-income families preschool education, the state gives those kids a leg up on a better start in regular school. Many educators and parents believe that pre-K is now as vital as require public kindergarten. Pre-K students will have a better chance at higher education of some kind, and may well stay in their home state and emerge as better-trained workers or leaders.

The governor and GOP lawmakers, who have done much in this legislative session to cut and slash and dismiss programs advanced in the past by Democrats and have done very little for the middle-class and less-fortunate in North Carolina, could signal common-sense lawmaking not by lowering the income ceiling for eligibility but by keeping it where it is. They should want to put their mark on a program that is of clear benefit to North Carolina.

Here is a chance to show that their legislative agenda isn’t just about cutting programs but about enhancing those that have clearly produced opportunities and in the case of pre-K, can prove a wise investment in the state’s future.

Taking the chance of leaving some kids out of such programs, which would surely happen if the income eligibility were lowered, isn’t smart governing and it also isn’t smart politics. It’s impossible to make a logical argument as to why income should be the determining factor in whether a child has access to a pre-K classroom. (And private pre-schools can easily cost in the thousands of dollars.)

This time, for an issue this important, let’s see doors opened instead of closed, and a very simple formula for public pre-K programs: The income ceiling for now will stay where it is, and the state will move toward the day of making pre-K like kindergarten, with all children attending. Now that is something that could be a noble addition to the McCrory agenda.

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