Money is there for universal pre-K

North Carolina could afford universal pre-K by dedicating more lottery proceeds to it.
North Carolina could afford universal pre-K by dedicating more lottery proceeds to it. 2014 file photo

Your Nov. 26 editorial (“Pre-K for all? A smart goal”) supporting universal access to More at Four (now NC Pre-K) was exactly right. The good news is that the funding is already in place; it just needs to be restored to its original purpose.

In 2001, North Carolina created More at Four and began a four-year effort to lower class size to 18 in grades K-3 to improve school readiness, increase student proficiency in math and reading, and eliminate the achievement gap. In order to pay for it, the state passed an Education Lottery. The Lottery was signed into law in 2005 with the firm designation that the funds would be used for pre-kindergarten for at-risk 4-year-olds, class size reduction, school construction and college scholarships. Then-Gov. Mike Easley made clear that he would not sign the lottery into law unless the funds were restricted to those purposes.

But the legislature can change the percentage allocation to each category with each budget it passes, and the lottery now spends a lower percentage of its proceeds on pre-K than it did for many years.

The cost of a pre-K student is about $5,000 annually and the program was designed to eventually enroll roughly 70,000 at risk 4-year olds. The enrollment reached over 34,000 by 2008 but has been reduced to just 27,000 today. Were it to be fully funded, it would cost roughly $300 million. The Education Lottery provided $634 million in 2016 – enough to pay for full funding of pre-K, and still help with class size reduction (no longer supported), school construction and scholarships.

The animating purpose of the Education Lottery was very clear. On the first day of the Lottery, I was asked as chairman of the State Board of Education to purchase the first ticket. Gov. Easley visited More at Four classrooms, where he held a press conference to emphasize where the money was going to be spent and focus on at-risk 4-year-old children.

Funding universal pre-K only requires that the legislature restores the Education Lottery funds to their original contract with the people – especially the 4-year-old children in our state. They only have one chance at pre-K and the time to act is now.

Howard N. Lee chaired the state Board of Education from 2003-2009 and was a state senator from Orange County from 1990-1994 and 1996-2002.