The N.C. House Select Committee on Early Childhood Education Improvement isn't fooling anybody with its title. This committee isn't focused on "improving" the state's early childhood education. It's trying to dismantle it, and take away thousands of at-risk children's access to pre-kindergarten programs.
It's shameful. And we, the public, shouldn't let them get away with it.
How are they planning to do this? On Thursday, they're set to unveil a plan to change the income eligibility guidelines so that many financially struggling families would no longer qualify.
It's no secret that the Republican-controlled legislature has been trying to upend the state's preschool program. In its 2011-2012 budget, GOP lawmakers slashed funding for the pre-K program by 20 percent and charged parents of children who attended a co-payment, which advocates said would financially preclude many children from attending.
Then Judge Howard Manning stepped in. Calling the moves an unconstitutional denial of access for eligible at-risk 4-year-olds to a sound, basic education, he ordered lawmakers to halt those changes. The Wake County judge, a Republican, has been overseeing state compliance with court rulings in a 15-year-old school finance lawsuit. He said the legislative moves would "cause a severe and significant impact on the ability of at-risk children to access the program and have the remediation that they need to be prepared for kindergarten."
The co-pay requirement didn't go through. But lawmakers made no attempt to restore funding that eliminated 4,000 preschool slots, and left a long waiting line of at-risk children. They also ignored changes Gov. Bev Perdue proposed to open up more slots - even without a tax increase. So last week, Perdue ordered the transfer of $9.3 million from unspent child care subsidy funds to make room available for 2,000 more kids in preschool this year.
Republicans, including Rep. Justin Burr, the co-chair of the early childhood "improvement" task force, called Perdue's move a "political stunt." If it was, they should have tried it themselves.
Finding a way to give more at-risk children access to the state's preschool program is something all state lawmakers should have been trying to do. The benefits are undeniable, as a Pew Center report last year noted in detailing how most states with pre-kindergarten programs were protecting the programs by adding funding or at least keeping funding flat. North Carolina was one of a handful of states that decreased funding.
Burr said the committee's recommendation aims to help the "kids most at risk" by narrowing the guidelines to match the federal poverty guidelines. But the school compliance ruling does not limit access to students who are the poorest of the poor - and rightly so.
The ruling recognizes that a broad spectrum of poor and otherwise at-risk children could and do benefit from the quality early childhood programs that North Carolina has become known for. Such programs can result in up to $7 return for every dollar the state invests in pre-K programs, experts say, because the students who attend preschool are more likely to stay in school, graduate and become productive taxpaying citizens than those who do not.
Judge Manning shouldn't let lawmakers get away with this sleight-of-hand move to get around his edict of providing access to all eligible at-risk 4-year-olds. The rest of us shouldn't either. Above is a list of lawmakers on that committee. Tell them that you stand for children - and that you expect them to as well.