Education

Looking for free Pre-K classes? New NC budget has good news

Preschool students join hands as teachers Michele Dutton and Nekia Riley use puppets to help improve classroom management and student behavior, while building children's social-emotional skill and positive behavior skills at Hillandale Elementary School in Durham, NC on Dec. 20, 2016. It is part of a program being developed in cooperation with the Duke Center for Child & Family Policy.
Preschool students join hands as teachers Michele Dutton and Nekia Riley use puppets to help improve classroom management and student behavior, while building children's social-emotional skill and positive behavior skills at Hillandale Elementary School in Durham, NC on Dec. 20, 2016. It is part of a program being developed in cooperation with the Duke Center for Child & Family Policy. cseward@newsobserver.com

Thousands of needy children were rejected from a state-run pre-kindergarten program last year due to a lack of classroom space and teachers. And thousands more will almost certainly be rejected again this coming school year.

But in two years, according to state legislators and budget writers, that wait list will mostly be gone.

The budget plan North Carolina lawmakers unveiled Monday night would set aside enough money to get rid of about 75 percent of the wait list for NC Pre-K – a list that last year included nearly 5,000 kids.

“I think it’s a very positive start,” said Tracy Zimmerman, executive director of the N.C. Early Childhood Foundation.

NC Pre-K is free for all eligible 4-year-olds. It works to teach them basic math and language arts, along with more general social skills.

Zimmerman also praised the budget for creating a new state government council to focus on every aspect of child development from birth to 3rd grade.

The programs serving North Carolina children in that age range are currently spread over multiple state agencies, all reporting to different bosses.

“Having that coordinated, whole-child approach provides a lot of opportunity,” Zimmerman said.

Why Pre-K is important

Scientific studies have found preschool programs give kids a head-start on school. That advantage compounds as they grow older.

For that reason, many business leaders support additional spending on early childhood programs. Jim Goodnight, North Carolina’s richest person and a major GOP donor, recently led a pre-kindergarten taskforce for a national business group.

His group published its report in February, and it seems the legislature listened. Expanding pre-K was one of its recommendations; another was creating a better system for tracking kids’ development from birth through 3rd grade.

“By 2020, 67 percent of jobs in North Carolina will require post-secondary education or training,” Goodnight told the News & Observer when the report came out. “Currently, however, only 42 percent of North Carolinians have the education required for these jobs of the future.”

Its final recommendation was to make better use of early interventions at school to help kids get on the right track as soon as possible.

Zimmerman suggested flagging young students who frequently miss school.

Arguments over money

So how will the plan for expanding NC Pre-K work?

Due to requirements about classroom size and student-teacher ratios, cutting down on the wait list requires getting new classrooms, hiring more teachers, or both, depending on the needs of the county in question.

Last year 27,019 children were in NC Pre-K classes and 4,668 were on the wait list. Getting rid of the entire wait list would’ve required more than $24 million, state budget writers said.

Cooper and the House proposed doing just that, using an equal combination of state and federal funds. One of Cooper’s campaign promises was expanding NC Pre-K.

The Senate, however, agreed on using the federal funds but didn’t want to spend any extra state money.

In the end, the Senate and House compromised with an agreement to spend half the state money that Cooper and the House wanted.

That means three-quarters of the wait list ought to be gone by 2019, assuming demand doesn’t grow by leaps and bounds.

However, that is possible. Zimmerman said fewer than half the eligible families in the state tried to enroll their children last year. Some probably just didn’t want to, she said, but there are likely many others who don’t even know it’s an option.

“The wait list doesn’t necessarily represent (all of the) need or demand,” she said.

Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran

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