Gov. Bev Perdue is asking lawmakers to find $30M by the beginning of 2012 for pre-kindergarten for at-risk four-year-olds.
The move, she says, is the first step in complying with this summer's ruling by Judge Howard Manning. The Leandro judge found that the state's constitution requires it to provide pre-kindergarten to all eligible children. Republican legislative leaders are trying to fight the ruling, arguing that the state has never fully funded the program for all eligible children.
Perdue's letter specifies the sources for the $30 million: $27M from the unspent, unappropriated money left on the bottom line after this year's budget-writing process, plus an additional $3 million from the state's Contingency and Emergency Funds.
State lawmakers haven't yet appropriated those funds, so Perdue doesn't have the power to direct their use for pre-K. If they decide to agree to her request, they could pass legislation earmarking the money when they come back to town November 7th.
The money would provide 6,300 more seats in 2012. That wouldn't be enough in itself to fulfill Manning's ruling, but Perdue says it would be a down payment on full compliance by 2016. It would also almost erase the $32 million lawmakers cut out of early education in this year's budget.
The governor's request to legislative leaders includes a plan from HHS for full compliance by adding 9,000 more slots in each of the next four fiscal years. According to the HHS plan, the program would serve some 67,000 at-risk children by 2016 - nearly three times the current enrollment of 24,000.
Estimates of the actual per-pupil cost of pre-K vary widely, but at the high end of the range, around $11,000 per year, the additional cumulative investment by the state required to sustain the proposed enrollment increases could be nearly $1 billion dollars by 2016. For context's sake, that's a little more than 5% of this year's total state budget.
"This is not necessarily the timeline that I or the state will choose to adopt," Perdue said in her letter. "We will have to implement the judge's order in a prudent and fiscally responsible fashion - the level of funding going forward will have to be predicated on the financial condition of the state."
Advocates of pre-kindergarten education hailed the request as a big step forward.
In an emailed statement, Dr. Olson Huff, Board Chairman of The North Carolina Partnership for Children, Inc (the governing body of Smart Start, the companion program to NC Pre-K), said, "In asking for funds to provide more at-risk children with quality preschool, Governor Perdue is heeding Superior Court Judge Howard Manning's decision in the ongoing Leandro case."
Huff added that this year's cuts to early education had been "devastating" to families and communities around the state. "Today, at last provides some good news.”
Rob Thompson with Covenant with NC's Children applauded the plan to expand pre-K by more than 40,000 seats over the next five years, but he sounded a note of warning: "While the Governor’s goal of tripling the number of NC Pre-K slots is admirable in its ambition, it is only achievable if legislators put partisan bickering aside to focus on what’s best for children. Up to this point, legislative leadership has appeared reluctant to comply with Judge Manning’s order."
Republican leaders were apparently rendered temporarily speechless, as neither Senate Leader Phil Berger's office nor House Speaker Thom Tillis's office could muster a reply two hours after the release was sent out. I'll update here when they send one out.
In the past, though, legislative GOP leaders have said any increase to pre-K funding would have to be covered by cuts to other areas in the education budget. “The best way to protect North Carolina’s children and their future is to keep our budget balanced, protect our AAA credit rating, and resist the urge to recklessly spend money we don’t have,” Berger said back in August.
Perdue's letter points out that her proposal for the funds would not result in putting the budget out of balance, raising taxes, or underfunding other priorities. "If the General Assembly believes that the funds should come from sources other than the ones I have identified, I am open to discussing that, as long as the funds would not be taken from other education needs" (emphasis hers).