Commentary

Saunders: Funding pre-K for poor children is right thing to do

bsaunders@newsobserver.comOctober 16, 2013 

In 1981, months after Ronald Reagan became president, Congress cut $1 billion from the federal school lunch program that feeds poor children. The U.S. Department of Agriculture then sought to have ketchup classified as a vegetable.

You read that right. Our government wanted to call ketchup a vegetable.

That way, when a child ate a french fry lathered with the stuff, they could say he’d had his veggies, at least according to federal nutrition guidelines.

If you thought that was coldblooded, wait until you hear what the state solicitor general said before the state Supreme Court this week: There is no constitutional guarantee for preschool for the state’s poor children.

The state legislature in 2011 cut funding for the pre-kindergarten program designed to help ease poor children’s transition into kindergarten, then tightened restrictions on who could qualify. Thousands of poor parents were left with no education options, unless you consider plopping their children in front of a television set and letting them watch “Sesame Street” an education option.

Downright misanthropy

John F. Maddrey, the state’s solicitor general, may be a fine fellow who loves his kids, leaves hefty tips for waitresses and doesn’t talk or text while in the movie theater. But in arguing that the state – we, the people – has no obligation to ensure that poor kids have every opportunity to avoid becoming poor adults, he is guilty of downright misanthropy.

For the record, the Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the constitution does guarantee every North Carolina child the right to a “sound basic education.”

Maddrey, of course, is merely doing the bidding of the legislature. But this is one instance where he should’ve let lawmakers do their own.

Maddrey: Man, I’m not saying that. May my tongue cleave to the roof my mouth before I go in there and argue that poor kids don’t deserve the same chance as every other child. You’re on your own.

Bumpkinhood

North Carolina was once known as “the education state,” an example of a progressive South. Now, we’re joined in malevolent bumpkinhood with other Southern states that see progressivism – hell, progress – as unwanted intrusions on their desired way of life.

Even if the court rules, as Maddrey argued on behalf of the state, that funding pre-K for poor children “is not a binding enforceable obligation of the state,” doesn’t it seem like the right thing to do?

It is – because education is an indisputable gateway out of poverty, off public assistance, out of the criminal justice system. Former Gov. Jim Hunt told me Wednesday that pre-K programs are “extremely valuable in getting children ready for school, ready to be successful in school, to graduate, to be successful, and to be able to get good jobs.”

“I hope,” Hunt said, “that North Carolina, by whatever means, will fully invest in the lives of these children. This really makes sense educationally and economically. The highest returns we get on education investments are our investments in the early years of a child’s life.”

Myriad studies affirm that.

Comedian Richard Pryor said it another way. Speaking as his character Mudbone, Pryor told a story of taking his friend to the witch doctor, Miss Rudolph, to have a debilitating mojo reversed.

After a price for the mojo-reversal had been agreed to – a fowl for the upcoming holidays – a large tarantula appeared and started crawling up Mudbone’s arm, but suddenly disappeared.

Mudbone asked, “Ma’am, could you tell me what happened to the tarantula?”

“Don’t worry about what happened to the tarantula,” Miss Rudolph told him, “but if you don’t bring me a goose or a turkey, you will see him again.”

That’s the message for heartless, indifferent or penurious legislators who worship only at the altar of cutting taxes: If you don’t aid these poor children now by providing them a head start, you will see them again – on the welfare lines, in the criminal justice system, sneaking up behind you at the ATM.

In other words, we’re going to pay one way or the other.

On “Sesame Street” one day last week, the letter for the day was “F.” That is also the grade legislators get for opposing education for poor children.

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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