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Fate of early childhood programs could rest with next legislature

coverArmed with a stack of folded construction paper, Charlotte Rogers ushered a four-year-old child to sit down at a pint-sized writing desk, take up a pencil and scratch out the words “I love you” in crooked letters on the inside.


With Grandparent’s Day just around the corner, Rogers’ mission for the morning was getting each of the 18 children in her preschool class to make two cards — one for each set of grandparents. It was no small feat, given most children are brand-new to a classroom setting and have just begun to learn to write.

By the time Kindergarten rolls around next year, however, the children enrolled in state-funded Pre-K classrooms like this one on the campus of Haywood Community College will have a distinct edge over other children from similar low-income backgrounds.

“The challenge is getting those who don’t know their ABCs and aren’t used to routine or working in a group ready to go to Kindergarten,” said Rita Wilson, the director of Haywood Community College

But many of the children who qualify for NC Pre-K haven’t been able to get in. State lawmakers have failed to fully fund the program. Thousands of children statewide are parked on waiting lists — waiting lists that have grown even longer following a 20 percent budget cut to the program this year.

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The fate of state subsidized preschool for low-income children now hangs in the balance. The next set of legislators elected to the General Assembly this fall will face a critical decision: whether to continue limiting the program or expand it to serve all those who qualify.

A lawsuit has challenged whether the state can legally deny children who meet the criteria for NC Pre-K. The North Carolina Court of Appeals unanimously ruled this summer that the state’s current policy — one that arbitrarily caps enrollment and as a result turns away children who technically qualify for the program — is unconstitutional.

The ruling appears to leave state legislators with few choices: increase funding to serve every child that is eligible or eliminate the program completely.

At its core, the debate is a philosophical one. How early in a child’s life should the state intervene to get them off to a good start academically? Should the state be in the pre-school business for low-income children at all? If so, how poor does a family have to be to qualify?

Some critics of a broad-based state-funded preschool fear it is a slippery slope, one that could eventually lead to all 4-year-olds being sucked into the state’s public school system. To N.C. Senator Jim Davis, R-Franklin, expanding NC Pre-K to serve every eligible child begs the question: just what is government’s responsibility to make up for poor parenting?

“Where does it begin and end? Does it start at birth?” Davis asked.

State-funded preschool bears an uncomfortable resemblance to a welfare state model of government, said Mike Clampitt, a Republican running for a N.C. House of Representatives seat representing Jackson, Swain and part of Haywood counties.

“It is government control of a child’s life and education from cradle to grave,” Clampitt said. “The question is do we want to start public education at four years of age instead of age six?”

Davis believes in personal responsibility, and that government can’t solve all of society’s ills.

“I think the greatest gift a father can give his kids is their mother at home,” Davis said.

Unfortunately, that’s not the reality for many children growing up in low-income families, said John Snow, D-Murphy, a former state senator hoping to win back the seat he lost to Davis two years ago. As a former judge, Snow witnessed the plight of at-risk children, those born to single, teen mothers or whose parents were on drugs.

“They are going to love that little baby, but are they going to do the things to make sure it learns the ABCs before they get into kindergarten?” Snow asked.

State-funded preschool for at-risk children is one of the most effective ways to break the cycle of poverty, Snow said.

“I believe some of those kids, if we don’t take care of them, they will end up being dropouts,” Snow said. “To try to get them back on line is expensive.”


What’s it worth?

State Republican leaders say there is another issue at play: economics. Essentially, it comes down to what the state can afford.

“Everybody wants something, but nobody wants to pay for it,” Clampitt added.

Clampitt differs from his opponent Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, who believes the state should play a role in early childhood education for at-risk children. He sees NC Pre-K as an investment, not a cost.

“It is a lot easier to get a child on a positive path early and move them forward than it is to have them fall off a path of progress and try to get them back on track,” said Queen, a former state senator who lost the election two years ago.

The state budget for NC Pre K was cut by 20 percent — or $32 million — this year.

“That was a significant cut to a globally recognized program that was helping to ensure the success of our young people in elementary school and as they proceeded through their academic years,” said N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, who voted against the cuts.

The cuts mean 6,000 fewer children are being served by the program this year. There are 26,000 children enrolled in NC Pre-K — down from a high of 34,000 children in 2009.

The state estimates 67,000 children are technically eligible for the program, yet the state provides enough funding for less than half those that meet the criteria.

In the seven western counties — which includes Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain — 525 children are enrolled in NC Pre-K, with 130 children on the waiting list.

State Superintendent of Public Schools, June Atkinson, credits NC Pre-K with some of the state’s advancements in education during the past decade.

Rapp likewise pointed to improvements in the high school graduation rate, which is currently the highest it’s been in the state’s history. It’s no coincidence, he said. Rather, the state’s efforts dating back to the 1990s with early child education programs like Smart Start — a precursor to More at Four which was renamed again this year as NC Pre-K — are making a noticeable difference as those children now reach graduation age.

“That didn’t happen because we sprinkled some magic powder on things the past couple of years. We laid the groundwork and now are seeing the results,” Rapp said.

The total budget for NC Pre-K this year is $128 million. It would take an estimated $300 million more to serve all 67,000 who are eligible. But not all who are eligible would apply, so the cost of fully funding the program would be some amount less than the roughly $428 million needed to serve all who are eligible.

Fully funded for all eligible children, NC Pre-K would have taken up 2.2 percent of this year’s $19.7 billion state budget. Republican lawmakers, however, claim the state can’t only cut unpopular programs if it wants to reduce spending.

“You can go broke doing good things, and that’s assuming it is a good thing,” Davis said.

North Carolina is not alone in its cuts to subsidized preschool for low-income children. Nationally, many states reduced funding for publicly funded preschool programs as the recession has lingered. However, North Carolina’s cuts are among the largest of any state except for Arizona, which eliminated its program entirely last year.

Currently, 40 states have some form of subsidized preschool for at-risk children, according to the National Institute of Early Education Research.

Since its inception, North Carolina’s program has been heralded as a national model. That status is slipping, however.


How the program works

Republican lawmakers claim cuts were primarily aimed at administrative costs. However at the state level, the cost of NC Pre-K administration was only $2 million, so it is unclear how cuts of $32 million could have come primarily from the administrative side.

There are also administration costs at the local level, but they are capped at 4 percent of the total budget. In the seven western counties, the total budget for NC Pre-K is $2.45 million, with $99,000 spent on administration. The vast majority of funding goes directly to classroom costs to serve the 525 children who are enrolled in the seven-county area.

Combining administration across seven counties under the umbrella of the regional Partnership for Children helps keep costs down, but the agency still has to put in other money to cover the true costs of managing the program.

“It’s just not enough to run the program,” said Janice Edgerton, director of Partnership for Children, which is based in Sylva but works throughout the seven western counties.

In most cases, children in NC Pre-K are enrolled in private preschools, with the cost of serving that child paid out of state funds.

Rather than creating NC Pre-K classrooms, the state pays $650 a month to buy a child a slot in an existing private preschool that meets the state’s standards for the program. In Haywood County, for example, there are 11 preschools that have NC Pre-K slots, serving a total of 125 students among them.

As part of the budget cuts to NC Pre-K, the state has reduced what it pays for each child.

Edgerton hopes that the preschools currently making slots available to NC Pre-K children won’t drop out of the program given the lower per-child allocation.

Preschool sites accepting NC Pre-K children must meet certain state standards. The program must be at least 6.5 hours a day, have certified teachers, and have a four or five star childcare license rating.

“In some ways every child is benefiting from NC Pre-K. It raises the bar for all the children in those classrooms,” Edgerton said.


Right foot forward

The impact of early childhood education for low-income children is hard to dispute. Volumes of academic research during the past decade have documented the benefits. One such study carried out by the UNC-Chapel Hill Child Development Institute in 2010 compared test scores of low-income children in third grade. Those who had been through More at Four as 4-year-olds outpaced their peers from similar economic backgrounds.

“Since then they’ve had kindergarten, first grade, second grade, third grade — a lot of intervening experiences — yet despite that, the impact of More at Four is still present,” said Ellen Peisner-Feinberg, a researcher at UNC-Chapel Hill who has studied More at Four, now known as NC Pre-K, for more than a decade.

That impact of NC Pre-K on a child’s academic performance several years later is a “strong test” of the program’s merit, Peisner-Feinberg said.

“As a researcher, I would look at the data and say ‘If we know this was more beneficial, why wouldn’t we want to support that?’” Peisner-Feinberg said.

The same study showed that NC Pre K was helping to close the achievement gap between low-income and middle-income students. That gap in test scores was reduced by 25 to 40 percent for low-income students who went through NC Pre-K, according to the study.

John Snow, a Democrat running for state senate, cited another telling study, also conducted by the Frank Porter Graham Development Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill, during three decades. Known as the Carolina Abecedarian Project, researchers followed 111 at-risk children from birth through adulthood, half of whom were enrolled in an early childhood development program, with the other half serving as a control group. By age 30, those in the program were four times more likely to have earned a college degree, more likely to hold down a steady job and less likely to be on public assistance.

Snow said the upfront cost of preschool for at-risk children pays off by producing productive members of society, while cuts to the program will actually cost more in the long run.

“If you got a person who cannot get a job and can’t take care of themselves, they get into drugs, then they end up in jail and that costs $30,000 a year to take care of them,” Snow said.

Peisner-Feinberg has also studied and measured children entering and leaving the program. They typically came out knowing their letters, numbers, basic math concepts, and so on.

But equally beneficial, in some ways, were the social skills children developed. They knew how to operate in a structured environment, from sitting quietly during story time to standing in line to getting along with other children, Peisner-Feinberg said.

Indeed, children who have been in a preschool setting are far better equipped to navigate kindergarten, according to CeCe Hayes, a NC Pre-K teacher at Haywood Community College’s Childhood Development Center.

“Most of it is so they are ready to take off and learn come Kindergarten,” Hayes said.


Laying the groundwork

More at Four, the precursor to what’s now called NC Pre-K, grew from serving just more than 7,000 children when it started 12 years ago to a peak of 34,000 in 2009. The growth in popularity is largely due to the program simply becoming established and well-known.

“There was some challenge filling the slots those first years, going out and finding underserved kids,” said John Pruette, the director of the Office of Early Learning within the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. “There was sort of a ramp up that needed to occur. When the program got established and we perfected mechanisms for identifying children, more and more parents started showing up to apply.”

To reach families those first couple of years, the state got creative. Off-duty police officers were hired to knock on doors at public housing projects to hand out brochures. Flyers were posted at laundry mats, the health department and food stamp office — places that low-income families frequent. To reach non-English speaking families, the Governor’s Director of Hispanic Affairs toured the state speaking in Latino churches, Pruette said.

The seven western counties jumped on board the first year the program launched, serving 125 children in 1999. Now, 525 children are served by the program in the seven western counties.

“NC Pre-K has been a wonderful resource for many children who would otherwise not have had access to kindergarten preparation,” said Janice Edgerton, director of the regional Partnership for Children, which administers the program in the seven western counties. “We are very grateful to have had the program here in the region since its beginning.”

There are 130 children currently on waiting list in the seven western counties — 130 children who are technically eligible but simply don’t have a slot because the state doesn’t provide enough funding.


Who’s eligible?

There could be a fall back solution for legislators torn over whether the additional funding to serve all qualified children is worth it. The state could change the criteria so not as many children qualify — namely by lowering the income level — thus allowing the state to serve all who are eligible without increasing the number of children being served.

In addition to low-income children, those from non-English speaking families or with disabilities also qualify for NC Pre-K.

But coming from a low-income household is seen as the strongest predicator of which children are likely to be at-risk academically in later years, and indeed account for the majority of children served by the program.

Families making 75 percent of the state median income are eligible for NC Pre-K. Currently, that comes out to about $50,000 a year for a family of four.

State lawmakers debated this year whether to lower that threshold. Some Republican legislators believed the income level was too high and instead should be capped at poverty level — an income of only $22,000 for a family of four. Dropping the income criteria to poverty level would have reduced the number of eligible children from 67,000 to 37,000, according to state estimates. Ultimately, the income criteria remained unchanged.

“After a storm of protest — and I was one of the ones protesting it — they moved it back to where it was,” said Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill.

But John Hood, head of the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think-tank based in Raleigh, has questioned whether a family of four with an annual income of $50,000 truly qualifies as “at-risk.” The income eligibility is too high, he argues.

“Meanwhile, thousands of truly needy children are on the waiting list. That never made any sense,” Locke wrote in an article urging NC Pre-K reforms earlier this year.

Locke, surprisingly perhaps, given his conservative leanings, made a case for early childhood education for those who are truly at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder.

“Children who lack support at home tend to perform poorly in school, fail grades, and fail to graduate. Some of them, in turn, have children out-of-wedlock, become drug or alcohol abusers, become welfare recipients rather than workers, and enter the criminal justice system,” Locke wrote in an article published during the legislative debate on NC Pre-K last spring.

State-funded intervention early in life is proven to help head off the costs to society later, Locke said. While Locke agrees with proponents of the program on those merits, however, he disagrees with the more liberal income eligibility.

“By all means, let’s focus tax dollars on poor children. Pre-K should be a targeted program aimed at saving money in the long run, not laying the foundations for universal, tax-funded preschool,” Locke wrote.

If expanding the program to serve all those who are eligible under the current income criteria is politically unpalatable, lowering the income eligibility may ultimately prove the compromise that allows the program to survive in some form or fashion.

While the N.C. Court of Appeals has declared the state’s arbitrary enrollment cap for NC Pre-K — one that serves only a portion of those eligible — unconstitutional, it has been appealed to the N.C. Supreme Court.

“I don’t know what the choices are going to be. It is conjecture to predict what is going happen,” said N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin.

However, John Pruette with the state Office of Early Learning and an early architect of the program, said the income criteria was initially designed not only to capture those living in poverty, but also those families living below the median income level who likely couldn’t afford any sort of preschool on their own.

“What we were concerned about was sort of that place where families exist and their children need help but they might not qualify for assistance,” Pruette said.

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