Local Politics

Lawmakers look at merging pre-K programs

Posted April 15, 2009 5:46 p.m. EDT
Updated April 15, 2009 7:20 p.m. EDT

— State lawmakers have proposed combining North Carolina's two nationally recognized pre-kindergarten programs to save money.

More at Four provides teachers to help children from low-income families get ready for kindergarten, while Smart Start provides early childhood education money to all North Carolina counties to improve child care programs and make them more affordable.

House Bill 539 would fold More at Four, which is handled through the state Department of Public Instruction, into Smart Start, which is overseen by the state Department of Health and Human Services. Proponents said up to 23 jobs could be eliminated through a merger, which could save the state $3.5 million over two years.

"House Bill 539 will change more in Raleigh than it will in classrooms and preschool centers across the state," said Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Madison, one of the bill's sponsors.

Rapp and other sponsors said both programs would continue to operate under a merger. About half of the 91 More at Four programs statewide already partner with Smart Start, while the rest are run by local school systems.

Bill Harrison, chairman and chief executive of the State Board of Education, said he would like to see more planning before any merger takes place.

"I would really like to see us have a study commission to take a look at More at Four and Smart Start, see if there's a better way to deliver the two programs," Harrison said.

Child advocates said they worry about the quality of instruction after a merger, and they agreed with Harrison that the state should examine the proposed move before jumping into it.

"Why would anyone implement a merger and check afterwards to see how it should be done and whether it was saving any money?" said Stephen Jackson, a policy analyst with the left-leaning N.C. Budget and Tax Center. "This is not so much bootstrapping as flying blind, and we owe our neediest children much more than that."