RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina's pre-kindergarten program for at-risk 4-year-olds would be privatized, funding would be frozen at current reduced levels, and fewer families would qualify under a legislative proposal being aired this week.
The proposed changes to the North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten program scheduled for debate by a legislative study committee Thursday are the latest in a series of moves by the Republican-controlled General Assembly to carve out opportunities for businesses to take over tasks, and collect taxpayer money, from public schools.
"Not every problem needs to be addressed by the government. Certainly this is a great place where the private sector, with the child care facilities, can pick up this important task," Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, the committee's co-chair, said Tuesday.
About half the more than 1,100 NC Pre-K sites are in public schools and fewer than 30 percent are run by private child care providers.
Burr said the proposal would continue state support at the reduced level approved last year, which cut funding by 20 percent. The $32 million cut led to nearly 6,200 fewer slots as of October, according to a report by the state health agency assigned oversight after a General Assembly shake-up last year. The service is now available to 24,700 children. About 67,000 children are eligible.
A Wake County Superior Court judge overseeing North Carolina's long-running school funding lawsuit ruled last summer that no eligible child can be turned away from the free preschool education. The Perdue Administration has estimated that could cost as much as $300 million to serve all eligible children within the next four years.
The Republican-led Legislature has resisted putting more money into the program out of concern the judge's ruling would saddle North Carolina with a large, expensive entitlement program.
The program was developed under court pressure since a landmark 1997 state Supreme Court decision to improve student performance, and to prepare 4-year-olds at risk of falling behind their peers.
For a decade, the program until last year called More At Four defined at-risk children as those whose families earn below the statewide average, who have a disability or chronic health problem, come from a family that doesn't speak English at home, or have parents on active military duty.
The proposal to be debated Thursday also proposes limiting funding to children in families at or below the federal poverty level, a move that would cut the number of children eligible.
Current eligibility is capped at incomes at or below 75 percent of the state median income. For example, a family of four was eligible last summer for North Carolina Pre-K if its income was no more than $50,975, according to a program document. The federal poverty rate for a similar-sized family is less than half that.
"We're just simply trying to make sure that we're focusing in for the children who are truly at risk, by making sure we are reaching those who are at the lowest level who really need those services," Burr said.
But unless funding is increased, diverting the pre-kindergarten program from schools may not be enough to attract businesses, said Kim Draughn, child care director of LuLu's Child Enrichment Center in the Alexander County town of Taylorsville. Draughn said she may not consider expanding classroom slots without increased state funding or relaxed regulations.
The state now requires pre-kindergarten programs to have a college-degree teacher certified to teach children between birth and kindergarten, and to feed the children meals and snacks.
"By the time I pay for the teacher, and the benefits, and the food there's not a whole lot of money," Draughn said. "It's hard for the private provider to meet those guidelines."
State Board of Education Chairman Bill Harrison said privatizing a program with a track record of success could lead to an erosion of standards.
"Private entities are about making money and if you can cut a corner here or there to save some dollars and get a teacher that's not licensed, you might be willing to do that. I'm not talking about all (providers), but I'm concerned about all kids," Harrison said. "It's an education program. It's not a day care program."
Draughn said she's seen dramatic results giving poor children a good start on their academic careers.
"These are children who have probably stayed with grandmother or aunt, or never been in any child-care setting before, and I do not know how they would ever make it in kindergarten without having this pre-K program first," she said.
Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio