Fewer children will be eligible for Pre-K in bill headed to House vote

lbonner@newsobserver.comApril 30, 2013 

A measure that limits the state’s preschool program mainly to 4-year-olds from families who live at or below poverty passed a House committee Tuesday, despite a mother’s plea that the tighter restriction would exclude children in need.

Rep. Justin Burr, the bill’s primary sponsor, said lowering income eligibility to 100 percent of the federal poverty level would better align the number of children eligible with state spending on the program.

The recorded vote approving the bill was 14-4. It next goes up to a vote of the full House.

Republicans have been considering lower income limits for the program for a few years. In his budget, Gov. Pat McCrory also reduced the income ceiling – though not as low as Burr’s bill. McCrory, who places the ceiling at 130 percent of the poverty level, also adds $52.4 million and 5,000 slots to the program over the next two years.

Almost 25,000 children are now in the Pre-K program, though many more qualify.

The current income limit is about 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Disabled children and those from military families are also eligible, bringing the total number of eligible children to more than 61,000, said Burr, an Albemarle Republican.

The number of eligible children would drop to 31,000 under the new limit, but the bill would not eliminate any Pre-K seats, he said. This year, a family of three at 100 percent of the federal poverty level would earn about $19,500.

The preschool program, started in 2001 as More at Four, is intended to prepare children for school who are at risk of failing.

Parents attended the meeting to ask legislators to vote against the bill.

“You will leave many children who need help behind,” said Jennifer Ferrell of Apex, mother of 3 1/2 year-old twins. She suggested the legislature pay for Pre-K enrollment with the nearly $4 million it’s set aside for the voter ID bill.

In an interview after the meeting, Jamie Jensen of Holly Springs said her 3-year-old daughter would not be able to follow her older sister into N.C. Pre-K because the family income of $37,000 a year would be too high under the new guidelines.

“They’re putting the future of our children at risk,” she said. “Why are we doing this to the kids?”

Funding and eligibility requirements for the program triggered a protracted fight between the Republican legislature, former Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue and the courts. The GOP budget in 2011 cut 20 percent of the Pre-K budget, though Perdue used money from other programs to pay for more children to go. Wake County Superior Judge Howard Manning ruled that the legislature could not erect barriers to Pre-K for children at risk of failing in school. Legislators appealed, and the Appeals Court upheld Manning’s decision.

A national report on preschool this week found that North Carolina’s program had the largest decline in enrollment, by percentage, than any other state in 2011-12. Enrollment dropped 19 percent as state spending declined 20 percent.

Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Cary Republican, said the state has never funded preschool so that every eligible child could attend.

Bonner: 919-829-4821

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