@NCCapitol

Pre-K classrooms feeling brunt of funding debate

Posted August 17, 2011 4:59 p.m. EDT
Updated August 17, 2011 6:03 p.m. EDT

— Stephanie Benner, a teacher at Lord of Life Preschool and Kindergarten Academy of Garner, has a big job – getting 18 4-year-olds from at-risk and low-income families ready for kindergarten.

"My goal is to give them the academic, social and emotional opportunities that they would not receive by not being in preschool," Benner says.

As one the state's certified pre-kindergarten teachers, she has been paying close attention to the debate in the General Assembly and the courtroom about funding for classes like hers, which are part of what used to be the More at Four program.

The state budget that took effect last month cuts about $16 million in funding for the program, renamed North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten, and shifts it from the state's education agency to the Department of Health and Human Services' child development division, which also runs a voucher program that helps workers and students pay child care costs.

To help offset the cuts, lawmakers added a provision to the budget that allows pre-kindergarten programs to charge co-payments of up to 10 percent of parents' income.

But Superior Court Judge Howard Manning, who has long overseen a landmark State Supreme Court ruling that every child receive an equal education, ruled last month that the changes would limit enrollment in the service and that the state must offer the program as part of its duty to provide a good, basic education.

Last week, Gov. Bev Perdue issued an executive order that pre-kindergarten education be offered to all eligible 4-year-olds while maintaining existing academic standards.

For a while, Benner worried that a co-pay option would force many of her students to drop out.

"All the debates have definitely had a direct impact to our classroom," she says.

Manning's ruling has taken co-payments off the table, for now, but lawmakers did not add any funding to make it up. That means many programs have less room for students who need them.

"There are going to be kids who miss the program," says Pamela Dowdy, director of Wake County's SmartStart program.

Dowdy says the program enrolled more than 1,200 children last year. This year, it can only afford slots for about 900. Approximately 725 children are waiting for pre-K services.

"(These are students) who are eligible for the program, who need the program and who may not be served," she says. "It's like the budget struggles are being fought over a 4-year-old child's future."

It is uncertain when or if more funding will become available for pre-K programs this year, butDowdy says the program will be ready to add more students if it happens.

In the meantime, teachers like Benner press forward, helping as many students as they can.

"Of course I'm concerned," she says. "Our children are our main focus here, and we do everything we can, from our hearts, for the children and for these families."