It’s a telling commentary on the current state of the political debate in North Carolina that advocates for children are hailing the Wednesday decision of a legislative committee on early childhood programs as a victory of sorts.
It’s a reasonable interpretation given the circumstances. The Republican leadership of the committee had floated a proposal to all but completely privatize NC PreK, the state’s nationally recognized preschool program formerly known as More at Four, and restrict eligibility to the point that almost 10,000 children currently enrolled in the program would no longer qualify.
That prompted a firestorm of criticism from advocates and the administration of Gov. Bev Perdue, who recently transferred $9 million from child subsidy funds to provide slots for 2,000 more kids in the program.
The Republican-led General Assembly slashed $32 million from NC PreK in the budget it approved last summer, cutting off access for 4,000 kids and adding to a massive waiting list. Roughly 67,000 four year olds in North Carolina are eligible for the program and less than 25,000 are enrolled.
Rep. Justin Burr defended the Republicans’ recent proposal to privatize the program and restrict eligibility to the federal poverty level, roughly $23,000 a year for a family of four, saying it would eliminate the waiting list.
Burr, the chair of the committee, unveiled a new plan when the meeting began Wednesday morning that was less onerous, though the underlying tone of limiting eligibility remained, as did language that said NC PreK should be provided in private child care facilities with exceptions available to allow public schools to participate.
Privatization would be the default. Public schools would need to clear bureaucratic hurdles to participate.
The still offensive compromise seemed to be where the committee was headed until Rep. George Cleveland complained about a passage in the committee’s proposed recommendations that referred to the increase in the number of children living in poverty in North Carolina and the numbers living in extreme poverty.
Cleveland said no one in North Carolina is living in extreme poverty, startling the audience in the committee room, and lighting up the twittersphere. Cleveland then offered an amendment to strike the phrase out of the report.
During a brief recess, members of the staff of House Speaker Thom Tillis arrived in the room and talked to the Republican committee members. When the meeting reconvened, Cleveland withdrew his amendment had nothing further to say about his view of poverty.
The committee then approved an amendment by Democratic Representative Rosa Gill which significantly weakened the privatization provision and the committee voted to pass on the less extreme recommendations to the full House.
It’s clearly a positive development that the committee report does not include the draconian access restrictions or the privatization decree, but the proposals are far from dead.
The next stop is the full House, where everything taken out of the report Wednesday could easily be inserted in the full budget without any debate. There’s plenty of precedent for that.
Burr refused requests from committee members Wednesday to hear from officials with the Department of Public Instruction about the plan to make it more difficult for public schools to participate in NC PreK.
And Republican legislative leaders have not been shy since they took over about ramming through their ideological agenda with little or no notice or debate. Slashing and privatizing early childhood programs is clearly on their radical search and destroy list.
The problem Wednesday was Cleveland’s offensive remarks stole the show. They had no choice but to water down their proposals to try to save face. That’s why the Speaker’s staff rushed to the scene.
The problem for Republicans is not what Cleveland said. It’s consistent with their agenda. The problem is how and where he said it.
If Republicans really cared about at-risk kids getting the help they need, they would not have slashed the program last year. They still want to limit eligibility and they still want to turn over pre-k to the for-profit world. They just don’t want to be called out on it.