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Don’t narrow access to N.C. prekindergarten

Here we go again.

N.C. legislators introduced a bill last week to reduce eligibility for the state’s prekindergarten program. House Bill 935 would change the income cutoff for children to about $23,000 for a family of four. The current cutoff is about $50,000 for a family of four. That change would slash the number of eligible N.C. children by at least a third, advocates say.

We had hoped Gov. Pat McCrory’s recent budget proposal, which included welcome money for 5,000 more at-risk children to enroll in the state’s preschool program was a sign that Republican legislative efforts to diminish the nationally lauded program had ended. But this legislation, sponsored by House Appropriations Chair Justin Burr, shows otherwise. It continues attempts to renege on the state’s commitment to provide free pre-kindergarten to all at-risk 4-year-olds. That commitment was made after the state lost a school equity lawsuit in the 1990s. As one way to provide access to the sound, basic education that the N.C. Constitution mandates, state officials set up a prekindergarten program in 2001 for at-risk 4-year-olds.

Yet, in 2011, N.C. legislators pushed through a budget that capped the percent of at-risk children who could participate, cut the program’s budget by 20 percent and instituted co-payments for some eligible families. Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning, who has been overseeing the school equity case, rightly struck down limits to enrollment the legislature imposed. He noted in his order: “Each at-risk four-year old that appears at the doors of the (N.C. prekindergarten) program is a defenseless, fragile child whose background of poverty or disability places that child at-risk of subsequent academic failure.”

Lawmakers would do well to remember those words as they consider this legislation. About 29,600 children are enrolled in N.C. pre-K. A state survey of contractors from September showed that 11,678 children were waiting to get into a pre-K class. Experts estimated last year, under current income guidelines, close to 67,000 4-year-olds are at-risk and eligible.

Changing income guidelines seems a not-so-subtle guise to skirt Manning’s ruling, which could require the state to find resources to fund slots for those on waiting lists. The governor’s budget falls considerably short of meeting that demand..

Lawmakers challenged Manning’s ruling in court last year but the state Court of Appeals unanimously upheld Manning’s order. The state Supreme Court agreed last month to hear the case.

This proposal would drop the income eligibility guidelines below even what federal free and reduced price school meal guidelines are. For a family of four, income for a reduced price meal is $43,568 and for free meals, it’s $30,615. By contrast, lawmakers are pushing a voucher program to allow a family of four earning $70,650 to receive money to go to a private school, or privately run public charter school.

This bill has other troubling aspects. It would not allow public schools to be contract administrators of pre-K. . And a child with limited English proficiency would no longer meet the guidelines.

We’ve said before that pre-K is a valuable asset. These attempts to limit access harm eligible students and the state. Lawmakers should drop this effort.

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