>>Back in 1994, the boards of education of several low-wealth school districts sued North Carolina in a case now known as Leandro. The districts argued the state was failing to provide all children with equal educational opportunity. The courts agreed.
In the years since, >>Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning has been in charge of monitoring the state’s efforts to improve the education available to low-income students. And for much of that time, North Carolina’s leaders have argued in court that the state’s pre-kindergarten program, More at Four, was a significant and important part of those efforts.
The program has been a resounding success. >>UNC’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute has been evaluating More at Four (now called NC Pre-K) regularly for a decade and found that its students do better in school. >>Research verifies that making quality pre-kindergarten widely available is one of the smartest investments a state can make. As President Obama said, “Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than $7 later on.”
But many of our current state leaders don’t like NC Pre-K. In 2011, the state legislature adopted a budget that capped the percentage of at-risk children the program would serve. That’s when >>Judge Manning stepped in. Even though >>less than half of the state’s four-year olds who qualify are currently served, Judge Manning decided putting a cap on the program was going too far. He ruled, and the Court of Appeals agreed, >>that the state must provide NC Pre-K to any four-year old who applies, assuming he or she is eligible.
So now, >>state legislators want to change the eligibility requirements. Currently, a child from a family with an income up to 200% of the federal poverty level (that’s $39,060 for a family of three) is eligible. Now state legislators want to reduce NC Pre-K eligibility to 100% of the poverty level — $19,530 for a family of three.
Providing a child with the kind of educational experience they get in NC Pre-K – low student-to-staff ratio with a maximum class size of 18 and teachers who meet strict education and licensing requirements – can run as much as $1,000 a month. That’s more than half of the annual income for some families who would not be eligible under the proposed change.
Last fall, the state Court of Appeals upheld a district court ruling that mandates the state to provide N.C. Pre-K for any “at-risk” child who applies. Rather than comply with the ruling, legislators would simply redefine “at-risk.” It’s a questionable legal strategy, but one that could provide them with a justification for serving only a certain segment of the current N.C. Pre-K population.
Legal matters aside, here’s what we know: We do better as a society when more children get a high-quality education. Lower crime rates, higher incomes and healthier families are all products of a well- educated populace. Let’s do what’s best for all of us and maintain broad access to N.C. Pre-K.