As money opens more pre-K slots, GOP looks to limit eligibility

Posted February 22, 2012 8:27 a.m. EST
Updated February 23, 2012 2:50 p.m. EST

— Gov. Beverly Perdue said Wednesday that she has found enough money to open an extra 2,000 slots in pre-kindergarten classrooms across North Carolina, but lawmakers have drafted legislation that would tighten up eligibility rules for the program.

Perdue said $9.3 million in federal money used to subsidize child care would be shifted to pre-K programs statewide. Wake County would gain 300 slots, officials said.

"We can do this for our children. We can assure in some small way that they have an opportunity to be somebody in North Carolina," she said while mingling with students and teachers at Happy Face Preschool in Raleigh. "We know that North Carolina Pre-K makes a long term difference in a child's life."

About 67,000 children statewide are eligible for such classes each year, but funding provides enough space for only 24,700.

Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, said one way to address the long waiting lists is to make fewer children eligible.

"We're trying to make sure with the funds that we have available that we're serving the children that are truly at-risk and truly meet that definition," said Burr, co-chairman of the House Select Committee on Early Childhood Education Improvement.

The group has drafted a bill that would limit eligibility for pre-K classes to children whose families are at or below the federal government's poverty guideline, which is an annual income of $22,000 for a family of four.

Under current state guidelines, a 4-year-old is considered "at risk" if the child's family makes less than $51,000 a year.

About one-third of the children now in North Carolina pre-K programs and thousands more on the waiting lists would no longer be economically eligible if the legislation passes.

Burr said federal programs like Head Start use the poverty standard to set eligibility.

"We're trying to see if we can meet that same standard and make sure that we're serving the kids that are most at risk," he said.

Superior Court Judge Howard Manning ruled last year that the state has a constitutional duty to provide pre-K classes to all at-risk 4-year-olds.

Republican legislative leaders have appealed Manning's ruling, and they reduced funding for pre-K programs in this year's state budget.

"This could be interpreted as one way to skirt that ruling by simply changing the definition of at-risk," said Rob Thompson, executive director of the advocacy group Covenant with North Carolina's Children.

"In my mind, we should be looking for ways to expand access to pre-kindergarten, not to limit access. So, we're really concerned with what's in that report," Thompson said.

Perdue spokeswoman Chris Mackey called the Republican recommendations a bad idea.

"The research is clear and convincing: Dollars invested in early childhood education pay dividends. That’s why the General Assembly’s repeated efforts to block access to NC Pre-K are so bad for North Carolina," Mackey said in a statement.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan backed Perdue's efforts to expand pre-K programs and said lawmakers need to find more funding.

“While the governor has been a tireless advocate for fully funding early childhood education, her commitment has not been matched by the legislature," Duncan said in a statement. “I hope that, as state leaders begin funding conversations for next year, they work to make this situation right by giving all of North Carolina's young at-risk learners a chance to succeed.”

Perdue said she doesn't have any constitutional or legal concerns about spending the child-care subsidy dollars without the approval of the General Assembly, which appropriates state funds.

The subsidy funds haven't been allocated as quickly as anticipated to all 100 counties, so Perdue and her advisers decided it was a better use of the money to help 4-year-olds for a five-month period rather than distribute child-care subsidies to parents knowing that the money would run out for some next year, said Al Delia, acting secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.