Some North Carolina lawmakers want to help address the long waiting list for pre-kindergarten seats by offering a state-funded online preschool program for low-income families.
The state House Education Committee backed legislation on Tuesday that would create a three-year virtual early learning pilot program targeted at preparing at-risk preschool children for kindergarten. Backers of the new program say it will help underserved young children who aren’t able to get into a traditional pre-K program.
NC Pre-K, the state’s program for at-risk 4-year-olds, serves 29,509 children. But thousands more children are on waiting lists to get into the program.
“High-quality pre-K is the best solution, no question about it,” said Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican and primary sponsor of the bill. “If we tripled the number of slots they still couldn’t get there. Transportation issues, health issues, socioeconomic issues, issues that we can’t even imagine.
“The purpose of this program is to deliver a high-quality program, early intervention for those kids so that when they do start school they’re not left in the dust.”
But critics say the new program falls short of providing children a real preschool program.
‘It seems so often in the last few years that we’re doing things on the cheap.” Keith Poston, president of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, said in an interview Tuesday.
House Bill 485 calls for using the UPSTART online program developed by the Waterford Institute, a Utah-based nonprofit group. According to Waterford, UPSTART is now used by children in 15 states.
Former Utah state Sen. Howard Stephenson told the committee how UPSTART helped students in Utah enter kindergarten at or above grade level and continue to outperform their peers years later academically. He said research has shown these students are on par socially and emotionally with their peers despite have learned on a screen.
“If you would adopt this program, especially for the rural kids, the low-income kids who just can’t get this kind of thing for one reason or another, you are going to be pleased with the results,” Stephenson said.
The bill calls for the State Board of Education to select up to 10 school districts for participation in the pilot. Those school districts would have to be in counties with waiting lists for the NC Pre-K program.
To be eligible, children would have to be 4 years old and their families at or below the federal poverty level. Families would be given computers and home internet access.
The program includes $500,000 in state funding. The state board is also required to report on the results of the pilot.
Horn said he believes the state should continue to increase funding for traditional pre-K programs. But he said that doesn’t preclude the state from trying other ways to help at-risk children.
Horn said he had been familiar with UPSTART for years. Based on how it’s gone in other states, Horn said it’s time to try it in North Carolina.
“Is this a panacea that’s going to solve every challenge in North Carolina?” Horn said. “I wouldn’t suggest that at all. Not even close. There are so many challenges that we have.
“This is one step in the right direction. It opens the door for us to take further steps if we find that this is a viable program that we believe it to be.”
Some early childhood experts have questioned the value of offering online Pre-K access over a traditional program.
Poston also questioned starting a new pre-K virtual pilot when the state’s K-12 virtual pilot schools are not doing well.
Both online schools have received D grades for their academic performance for the past three years and are on the state’s list of “continually low-performing schools.” Despite the poor academic results, state lawmakers showed their support for the two schools last summer by extending the pilot program to 2023.
Poston said providing low-income children with internet access and computers isn’t enough to help them prepare for kindergarten.
“We believe virtual education has a place and a role, clearly,” Poston said. “But the idea of it becoming an adequate replacement for high-quality pre-K where children can build relationships with peers and educators in a safe learning environment are all incredibly important.”