Progressive Voices

The effort to dismantle pre-kindergarten

As part of an ongoing effort to avoid complying with an important  court ruling, leaders of the Republican majority in the General Assembly have asked Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning to “clarify”  his recent order mandating that at-risk students be allowed to enroll in the North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten (NCPK) program.

For more than a month after the order was released, the General Assembly refused  to take any action to comply with it even though school was set to  begin shortly all over the state. That inactivity led to understandable  confusion on the part of pre-kindergarten providers who have had no  choice but to attempt to comply with the order on their own. These  providers have already been under considerable stress dealing with the  reorganization of the pre-kindergarten system and its needless transfer from the Department of Public Instruction to the Department of Health  and Human Services.

In order to fill the void created by the  General Assembly’s unwillingness to comply with Judge Manning’s order,  Governor Beverly Perdue issued an executive order on August 9th  directing DHHS to maintain and strengthen the program’s high academic  standards and eliminate all admission barriers to at-risk preschool children. In their request to Judge Manning for clarification,Republican leaders stated that they did not believe Perdue’s action was  warranted. However, they do not explain how inaction could be warranted  in the face of Manning’s order.

The order is actually quite clear  on several major points in spite of the claims to the contrary. In a  memo sent to GOP senators in response to Governor Perdue’s executive  order, Senate Majority leader Phil Berger’s chief of staff Jim Blaine  wrote, “We do not believe the court intended for the governor to  interpret the ruling in a way that creates a universal, constitutional  entitlement to state funded Pre-K/daycare for 4-year-olds”.

But  that is precisely what the order creates for at-risk four year olds.  Judge Manning concluded his order with four specific key points in bold  writing that are set off from the main text of the opinion. The very  first point clearly directs that “[t]he State of North Carolina shall  not deny any eligible at-risk four year old admission to the North  Carolina Pre-Kindergarten Program (NCPK) and shall provide the quality  services of the NCPK to any eligible at-risk four year old that  applies.”

It does not get any clearer than that.

In case  there was still any lingering doubt about the appropriateness of  charging fees, which amount to about 10% of low income participants’  pre-tax salaries, Judge Manning stressed in his third bolded point that “the State of North Carolina shall not implement, apply or enforce any other artificial rule, barrier, or regulation to deny any eligible  at-risk four year old admission to the prekindergarten program, NCPK.”

The  General Assembly’s intransigence in complying with Judge Manning’s  order could lead one to wonder whether NCPK is a worthwhile program.  However, the program has been evaluated as a resounding success time and  again by UNC’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute and  Duke’s Center for Child and Family Policy.

On the national  level, North Carolina’s pre-kindergarten program (which was formerly known as “More at Four”) has repeatedly been held up as a model for  other states by national evaluators. Pre-kindergarten is increasingly  viewed as one of the most vital educational investments that we can  make. A growing body of research by education policy experts and  economists, including Nobel Prize winner James Heckman, demonstrates  that it produces large academic achievement gains and cuts educational  costs in the long run. Indeed, next year’s federal “Race to the Top”  grant competition focuses exclusively on increased access to  prekindergarten services.

Amazingly, even House Speaker Thom  Tillis — one of the chief architects of the legislative attack on pre-K  — admits the importance of such services. In a recent written  statement, he stated that “The majority in the General Assembly has no  higher priority than providing services to pre-K students.”

Sadly,  in spite of the obvious importance and success of NCPK, it appears that  Tillis and his colleagues have decided to put their own political  objectives ahead of our children’s wellbeing. Let’s hope they don’t get  away with it.

Matt Ellinwood is a Policy Advocate at the Education and Law Project of the North Carolina Justice Center