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.