A proposal to cut in half the number of children eligible for the state's free Pre-K program won tentative House approval Thursday.
House Bill 935 would lower the number of eligible children to about 31,000 by changing the legal definition of an at-risk child.
Under current law, a 4-year-old is considered at-risk and eligible for the program if his or her family makes less than 75 percent of the state's median wage. That's about $39,000 a year for a family of three.
Children are also currently eligible if they have an active duty military parent, limited English proficiency, developmental problems or chronic illness.
More than 60,000 children a year in North Carolina are eligible for the program under the current guidelines.
The proposal would reduce the family income threshold to the federal poverty level, about $19,500 for a family of three – about half the current maximum.
Children with limited English proficiency or chronic illness would no longer be automatically eligible.
Sponsor Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, says the bill doesn't cut the program. It simply brings the guidelines into agreement with the available funding.
The program has never been fully funded under either party. Its budget was cut by 20 percent last session. It currently serves less than 30,000 four-year-olds.
"We will still have more qualified 4-year-olds than we do slots," Burr said. "There will not be one slot cut. This is simply ensuring that we as a state are serving those most at risk."
The change would also help bring the state closer to compliance with a 2011 court ruling.
Wake Superior Court Judge Howard Manning ruled the state's constitution requires it to provide free pre-kindergarten to all at-risk 4-year-olds. His ruling, however, didn't deal with the definition of "at-risk."
Democrats tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill, urging Republican leaders to expand the program instead of cutting eligibility.
"We can’t all roll up the ladder and say only our children should have an opportunity," said House Minority Leader Larry Hall, D-Durham."It doesn’t take care of the need just because we change the definition."
Hall urged Republicans to take a long-term view of the program. "We’re getting ready to doom North Carolina in many areas moving forward," he said. "We’re talking about impacting our graduation rates. We’re talking about a developing a workforce that will not be able to compete."
Rep. Marcus Brandon, D-Guilford, said the need for pre-kindergarten help doesn't end at the poverty line. "When you look at 60 percent of third graders who aren’t reading on grade level, that’s not 100 percent of poverty. It goes well beyond that."
The measure passed largely along party lines, 63-46. It's scheduled for a final vote Monday night before it heads to the Senate.
Governor Pat McCrory has also proposed cutting eligibility for Pre-K. His benchmark is 130 percent of the federal poverty line, or about $25,500 for a family of three.