If you sent an email or otherwise contacted N.C. lawmakers on the House Select Committee on Early Childhood Education Improvement, thank you. Your opposition to changes the panel planned to recommend that would take away thousands of at-risk children's access to pre-kindergarten programs likely helped change their minds.
On Thursday, the panel ditched a draft report's controversial recommendations to dramatically lower the income eligibility guidelines - a change that would disqualify many financially struggling families from participating. Members also backed away from a recommendation that state pre-K be provided solely in private child care facilities - not in public schools.
We applaud panel members for listening and changing course. As we said Sunday, taking away poor children's access to pre-K is not in the best interests of either the students or this state. We encouraged our readers to contact panel members and tell them that. Feedback we've received show a number of you did.
On Thursday, several advocacy groups said they were gratified. Said N.C. Justice Center executive director Melinda Lawrence in a statement: "The House Select Committee demonstrated respect for the democratic process and responded to the public comment we and an array of other organizations submitted."
Added Rob Thompson, executive director of The Covenant with North Carolina's Children, in a statement: "The committee chairs, Rep. Justin Burr and Rep. Rayne Brown, deserve credit for listening to child advocates and the public and slowing this process down... This is a good first step in a long process."
They're right. But Thompson alludes to the clinging uneasiness about it. That's because the Republican-controlled legislature has been open about dismantling the state pre-K program. In its 2011-2012 budget, it slashed funding for the pre-K program by 20 percent and established a co-payment charged to parents of children who attended.
Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning, who has been overseeing state compliance with rulings in a school finance lawsuit, called those moves unconstitutional. He ordered them halted, saying the moves denied education access for all eligible at-risk 4-year-olds.
The co-pay was stopped. But lawmakers did not restore funding that eliminated 4,000 preschool slots. They also ignored changes Gov. Bev Perdue proposed to open up more slots. So recently, Perdue ordered the transfer of $9.3 million from unspent child care subsidy funds to make room available for 2,000 more poor kids this year.
On Thursday, though the House panel didn't make its controversial recommendations, members continued to express a preference for narrowing eligibility so fewer children would qualify. And one member, Rep. George Cleveland, R-Onslow, made the astounding claim that no N.C. children lived in "extreme poverty." He also challenged Census data showing a growing number of poor N.C. children.
Those would be laughable comments if people like Cleveland weren't helping set policy for the continued prosperity of this state and for the welfare of its people, especially children - the most vulnerable.
Such ill-informed comments show how critical this fight still is. The public must continue to be vigilant and vocal about this issue. All of us, including lawmakers, must stand up for children. They're our best hope for the future - and we are theirs.