Pre-K funding, eligibility will be a key budget issue
Posted May 19, 2013
Updated May 20, 2013
Raleigh, N.C. — As Joanna McConnell bragged on how her son, Jordan, had learned to count over the past year, the 5-year-old obliged and began sounding off: "1, 2, 3..."
McConnell, a single mom from Garner, credits her son's pre-kindergarten class, with turning him from a shy boy to one who gets along with other children well and will sing about butterflies at the drop of a hat.
"I'm thankful for the program," McConnell said. She works two jobs, one at the post office and the other at Papa John's, which hasn't offered her much time to teach Jordan his letters, numbers and how to get along with other children. Pre-K has helped fill those gaps.
"I feel like, when he goes to kindergarten, he won't be blindsided," she said.
That is exactly the idea behind North Carolina's Pre-K program, likely to be at the center of budget and policy debates this spring. Some pre-kindergarten classes take place at public schools; others are provided in preschool classrooms. All have to meet standards for curriculum and teacher certification that advocates say are critical to ensuring students take away what they need in order to start elementary school prepared to learn.
Gov. Pat McCrory has proposed expanding the number of state-funded Pre-K slots available every year by 5,000, to 29,400 starting July 1. Meanwhile, House lawmakers have moved to limit the number of children eligible to participate in the state-funded program. Across the state this year, more than 60,000 4-year-olds were eligible for the program – twice as many as the state could afford to serve.
"The children we don't serve in our programs are going to go to kindergarten whether they're ready to learn or not," said Pam Dowdy, executive director of Wake County SmartStart, which oversees allocation of pre-kindergarten slots here.
Skeptics question if Pre-K provides benefits that last
North Carolina Pre-K, what was once More at Four, was the public policy darling of Democratic governors Mike Easley and Bev Perdue. As such, Republicans who now control the General Assembly are naturally prone to be skeptical of it. President Barack Obama's push for universal pre-kindergarten has also helped turn the idea of high-quality academic education for 4-year-olds into a political pinata.
"I feel like we greatly denigrate people a lot of times by assuming they're incapable of doing anything for themselves unless the state does it for them," Rep. Jeff Collins, R-Nash, said during a recent House floor debate over tightening eligibility criteria. "The studies I've read have shown the pre-K program that's been used most widely in our country has virtually no effect on students after they reach the third grade."
Called "fade out," the idea that pre-K has only short-term benefits is often cited by the program's critics and budget hawks looking for a reason to cut spending.
"The consensus in the field seems to be that fade out happens if that child returns to a classroom filled with other children who have not benefited from early intervention," said Kenneth Dodge, a psychology and public policy professor at Duke University and director of the Center for Child and Family Policy.
If a few children are prepared to learn, he argues, but the teacher has to deal with a classroom that is made up primarily of students behind the curve, the beneficial effects of pre-kindergarten will wear off.
Dodge's own research has confirmed that effects of a good pre-kindergarten program last at least until third grade. Because North Carolina's program is relatively new, he and his colleagues are still collecting and analyzing North Carolina data to see if the effects last into the years beyond.
To be sure, there is research to suggest the benefits of pre-kindergarten are temporary.
But it's worth pointing out that the most widely circulated of those studies looks at Head Start, a federally-funded preschool program, not pre-kindergarten specifically. Other studies have emphasized not just the availability of programs but their quality.
"The quality of the teacher, it is becoming clearer and clearer, has a big impact," Dodge said.
So does the number of children who have been exposed to some kind of pre-kindergarten program.
Policy makers, he said, should think about pre-kindergarten much like medical doctors might think about a vaccine. They can't stop an outbreak if only a few individuals in a population are immunized against a disease. But as more people are vaccinated, the disease is less likely to crop up and less likely to spread if it does.
Similarly, there is a tipping point where, if enough children in a classroom are prepared to learn, they can help bring their entire class along, allowing the teacher to stay close to the curriculum rather than having to work with individuals who are lagging behind.
North Carolina has seen good effects from its first groups of Pre-K students. But if funding is cut, Dodge said, the state may see shorter returns for its Pre-K investments as well.
"If we fall below some number there, and I don't know what that number is, we do run the risk of having those fade out kind of effects," he said.
State can't fund all who are eligible
Currently, students from families who earn up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level – $39,060 for a family of 3 in 2013 – are considered "at risk" for potential academic problems and therefore qualify for state-funded pre-K programs. The House bill that Collins was debating, and which is now pending in the Senate, would reduce that "at risk" income definition to 130 percent of poverty, or about $25,900 for a family of three.
Doing so would trim the roster of 60,000 families eligible to enroll in pre-K to something closer to the 29,000-plus slots McCrory proposed funding as part of his budget. Other families could qualify for pre-K based on other criteria, such as having a family member in the military.
"There are still more kids than there are slots," Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly said. "There will not be one slot cut with this legislation."
But Dowdy, whose agency helps coordinate pre-K spending in Wake County, says more factors should define who is "at risk" than just a family's income.
"We also consider things like parent education, chronic health conditions, whether they are from a single-parent household, and whether English is a first language," Dowdy said.
Whether a family is bringing home a wage that is 130 percent of the federal poverty level or 200 percent, they are still struggling to get by in Wake County, where the cost of living is relatively high. Lowering the threshold for eligible families here, she said, would curb her program's ability to take into account other risk factors and prevent it from reaching children who may be more in need.
"If you do not have the ability to read, you cannot inspire a love of reading in your child," Dowdy said.
Rather than looking for ways to curtail eligibility, Dowdy argues the state should look at ways to expand pre-K funding. Doing so, she said, would save money in the long run. Students who have had pre-K are less likely to have to repeat their kindergarten year.
"If we can reduce that retention of children being held back in kindergarten, that's a pretty big cost savings," she said.
Lawsuits, leadership issues also play into plans
Lawmakers may have another reason to leave the definition of "at risk" alone for the time being.
Courts have used the long-running Leandro lawsuit to prod the state into providing more money in support of the North Carolina constitution's guarantee of a "sound, basic education" for all. Most recently, a Wake County Superior Court judge ruled that the state has a duty to provide Pre-K to at-risk 4-year-olds as a result of that guarantee.
The North Carolina Court of Appeals agreed with that ruling, and the case is headed back to the state Supreme Court.
"I think we need to let that play out," said Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, a co-chairman of the budget committee that oversees funding for Pre-K.
The state Senate is due to roll out its budget plan this week, and it is unclear whether they will follow the lead of McCrory in expanding the number of Pre-K slots available.
"Long-term, after this court case is over, we need to take a look at what 'at risk' means," Hise said. Like Dowdy, he said the definition should involve more than just an income number.
No matter what income threshold you set, Hise said, some children who could benefit from Pre-K may end up being just outside the threshold.
Although North Carolina doesn't have the capacity to expand Pre-K to every student, Hise said, the state could use its early childhood money better.
Speaking for himself, Hise said he would rather see the state better target at-risk families and provide preschool services throughout childhood for a smaller number of families.
"I think we can make better investments," he said.
Another reason to wait may be to get some direction from the McCrory administration. The governor initially appointed Diana Lightfoot to head the state's early childhood program. Before her appointment, Lightfoot had served as the head of a nonprofit skeptical of government-funded pre-kindergarten and was forced to resign before she took office.
Because the McCrory administration dismissed the division head appointed by Perdue, the childhood agency has been without a permanent leader for months. The administration has recently appointed Rob Kindsvatter, a Department of Health and Human Services veteran, as director of the Division of Child Development.