Educating young children has, somehow, turned into a political football in North Carolina. But everyone, regardless of party or ideology, should celebrate the news that broke Friday: North Carolina will receive $70 million from the federal government to improve early childhood education across the state.
That was no small feat. Thirty-five states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico applied for pieces of the $500 million prize. Just nine states won. North Carolina's application scored the highest of all 37, and the state virtually tied Ohio for receiving the most money.
There is a sad contradiction at play here. Even as a wide-ranging panel of experts in education and child development consider North Carolina a national model, the Republican-led N.C. legislature is working to contract rather than expand that success. The Republican majority voted last summer to cut funding for North Carolina's admired pre-kindergarten program, previously known as More at Four, by 20 percent. They also made other changes that put the program out of reach for many of the mostly low-income families that enroll.
That didn't sit well with Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning. Manning ruled in July that the changes violated the state constitution's guarantee of a sound and equal education for all children. He told the state to cover any low-income 4-year-old who wants to enroll.
The legislature has ignored Manning's order. Some might suggest that the $70 million federal grant, announced by Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, relieves pressure on the legislature to fund pre-kindergarten adequately. In fact, the opposite is true. The grant cannot be used to restore the lost state funding. And with significant improvements to early childhood learning on the way, it makes more sense than ever for the legislature to make the area a funding priority.
It would pay off. Study after study shows that at-risk kids enrolled in high-quality pre-K programs get off to a better start than those who don't. They aren't so behind on the first day of kindergarten, which gives them a better chance of staying in school, graduating, getting a job and staying out of prison.
Scores on the so-called nation's report card came out last week. They showed that about two-thirds of the nation's eighth-graders are not proficient in reading or math. The causes and solutions are complex and no amount of federal grants will force some parents to be involved in their children's lives. But we know that many of the failing kids were far behind before they ever got started. About 374,000 N.C. kids under age 5 are considered low-income, or about half of all kids that age. Public investments in their earliest years give them a chance.
North Carolina will use the federal grant over four years to better train teachers, measure what's working and what's not and to gauge children's progress. The state will also establish a "transformation zone" in northeastern North Carolina, where the needs are intense.
Skeptics might say that North Carolina's status as a presidential battleground state and host of the Democratic National Convention didn't hurt its application. That's impossible to know (though only two of the nine winners are important battleground states). Either way, the grant is good news and we hope it sparks a renewed commitment to educating North Carolina's kids before it's too late.