The Republican leadership of the General Assembly seems to have backed off for now on their plans to slash eligibility for NC PreK and completely privatize the program.
That’s welcome news, but not very reassuring since there is no indication of a change in philosophy among legislative leaders. And the think tanks that support them continue to push to privatize everything they can from public schools to liquor sales.
The temporary retreat came after the leadership’s draconian preschool proposals created a firestorm of protest from advocates for children and from Gov. Bev Perdue and it came at a committee meeting where Rep. George Cleveland declared that no one in North Carolina is living in extreme poverty.
Cleveland even tried to amend the committee’s recommendations to the full General Assembly by taking out references to poverty.
That made it even more politically difficult for the Republicans to follow through on their plan to restrict eligibility to the point that almost 10,000 children currently enrolled in the program would no longer qualify and to turn NC PreK completely over to the private sector by taking it out of the hands of public schools.
A report this week from the N.C. Budget and Tax Center shows what a disastrous plan that would be, especially for rural counties with a high percentage of people living in poverty.
In 17 counties 100 percent of the current PreK slots are in public school settings as of the first of the year.
All of those counties are rural and all but a handful have poverty rates higher than the state average of 17.4 percent. The few counties that are the exception to that rule have child poverty rates of 24 percent or greater.
These are not bustling urban areas with private interests clamoring to get a piece of the NC PreK pie. They are places where many families are struggling to make ends meet and the public schools are one of the few things they can count on.
The report also finds that more than half the state’s counties rely on public schools for the majority of their PreK programs and almost all of those are rural.
Total privatization of PreK is a bad idea for many reasons, none more compelling than the disastrous impact on the poorest counties and the poorest communities in North Carolina.
The debate over privatization and slashing eligibility now shifts to the General Assembly session that convenes in May.
You can bet the radical proposals will resurface then, most likely in the budget, where they can appear with little or no notice, put there at the direction of a powerful lawmaker not as the result of a vote in a committee or action on the House or Senate floor.
The budget that lawmakers passed last summer slashed $32 million from NC PreK and made deep cuts to Smart Start.
That’s strong evidence that the current legislative leadership doesn’t support adequately funding programs to help at-risk four-year-olds. And they still want to take the next step, cut off more kids and privatize the program completely.
They have just realized they will have to be a little more discreet about how they do it. The method doesn’t matter much to children and families in the state’s poorest counties. They will lose either way.