RALEIGH, N.C. — Gov. Beverly Perdue said Thursday she is shifting $20 million in projected spare funds to accommodate up to another 6,300 4-year-olds in the state's pre-kindergarten academic enrichment program, again moving into disputed territory with the Republican-led legislature.
Perdue issued an executive order authorizing the expansion of North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten, a program previously called More At Four.
It was nearly two months ago that a unanimous three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeals upheld a lower court decision that changes by the Republican-led General Assembly would deprive most from benefiting. The changes included a 20 percent funding cut.
The General Assembly this summer reversed controversial changes that limited the number of slots for 4-year-olds the program was primarily created to help – those at risk of falling behind their peers due to chronic health problems, or because their families were in financial hardship or did not speak English at home.
"After the General Assembly cut early education programs by 20 percent, thousands of our youngest students were cut out of the Pre-K classroom. Today, we can welcome many of them in," Perdue said in a statement.
Perdue's office said money will shifted from other areas within the Department of Health and Human Services, where lawmakers moved the program's administration. The money will be distributed to counties before her four-year term ends in January to fund the expanded enrollment through the rest of the current academic year.
House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, who have said previously that they want to appeal the court ruling, said Thursday that Perdue's move could jeopardize the state Medicaid program, which lawmakers tried to shore up in this year's budget.
“It’s fitting that one of Gov. Perdue’s last acts as governor is to seek a return to irresponsible budgeting through an expensive political stunt that takes money from Medicaid patients for a temporary expansion of government day care," Tillis and Berger said in a joint statement. "This executive order injects more uncertainty into the Medicaid system by placing patients at further risk and puts additional strain on already tight county budgets.”
DHHS Secretary Al Delia said the money being shifted is simply a projected surplus that includes lapsed salaries and savings from efficiencies.
"Every year – and it changes from year to year – there are unspent dollars," Delia said. "The governor has a requirement really to uphold the law of the state, and this is the law of the state."
Advocates for disabled North Carolina residents expressed dismay, however, saying the state has more pressing needs than expanding pre-kindergarten rolls.
Julia Adams, assistant director of government relations for The Arc of North Carolina, said many people will be forced out of group homes in January because of a combination of federal rulings in lawsuits, budget cuts and Medicaid changes.
"There will be no other place for them," Adams said. "We're talking about having to turn individuals who are our most vulnerable – an adult with Down syndrome in their 50s – out of their residency."
Advocates have repeatedly asked Perdue for money to keep those group homes open till a solution is worked out, and Adams said any surplus money should have been divided among various needs.
"We need a safety net, and today we could have gotten a safety net," she said.
Delia said he's concerned about the coming group home crisis, but he said there's nothing the governor can do because state lawmakers have rejected a request for help for group homes.
"If the legislature specifically says you cannot use state money for this purpose, then you cannot use any state money for that purpose," he said.
NC Pre-K now enrolls about 25,000 children, down from about 35,000 in 2010 before the funding cuts. Estimates are that about 67,000 children statewide may be eligible, but Perdue's administration has estimated helping them all could cost taxpayers up to $300 million a year.
Classroom space and teachers are available to quickly enroll another 1,000 children on waiting lists, Perdue's office said. Nearly 11,700 children are on waiting lists for the program, according to the advocacy group Covenant with North Carolina's Children.
"Gov. Perdue's decision means that over 6,000 more children will enter kindergarten better prepared to succeed in school and in life," said the group's executive director, Rob Thompson.
The pre-kindergarten program was enacted after the state Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that North Carolina's constitutional guarantees of a right to a sound, basic education include providing pre-kindergarten services for at-risk children.