Upcoming legislative session: A vulnerable time for vulnerable children

Upcoming legislative session: A vulnerable time for vulnerable children

- in Progressive Voices

North Carolina legislators return to Raleigh this month and whether they like it or not, they will make a host of decisions that will have a profound impact on children’s lives. In 2011, lawmakers took several steps that rendered the programs serving our state’s most vulnerable kids even more underfunded and threadbare than ever before. The question now is: Will they repair some of the damage they inflicted or make matters even worse? At this point, the outlook is not particularly encouraging.

Here are some of the areas and programs that cry out for more resources and attention:

Early Childhood Education

Since leaving town last summer, leaders of the North Carolina House have proposed narrowing eligibility for the NC Pre-K and fully privatizing the program. Advocates were able to beat back these proposals at the time, but they expect the legislature to make another run at restricting eligibility this summer when the session reconvenes.

In addition to potential policy changes, legislators must also address the issue of funding for NC Pre-K and Smart Start. Last year, the legislature cut both programs by 20%, leaving thousands of children without access to a high-quality early education. The Governor took a positive step this spring by funding more than 2,000 new NC Pre-K slots, but it was just a fraction of what is needed. The fundamental question remains: Will the General Assembly continue to cut early childhood programs or will they begin to reinvest in our youngest learners?

The Earned Income Tax Credit

In North Carolina, one in every four children lives below the poverty line, an unacceptable number for a state with so much wealth. The state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a refundable tax credit for low-income working families and is a proven tool for lifting families and children out of poverty. North Carolina’s EITC is scheduled to sunset this year. Legislators will have to decide whether to extend this tax credit or make the decision to, in effect, raise taxes on poor families. The outcome is far from certain.

Medicaid

Nearly one million children in North Carolina rely on Medicaid for their physical and behavioral health care. Unfortunately, many of these children, especially in rural parts of the state, are finding it more and more difficult to access care as a result of another overhaul of the state’s mental health system and years of funding cuts. In fact, the state’s Medicaid program faces a shortfall of nearly $250 million heading into 2013. Legislators will need to address this shortfall to ensure that it doesn’t impact care for children, but without new revenue this will extremely difficult.

Juvenile Justice

For years, child advocates have urged legislators to stop prosecuting all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, regardless of the severity of the crime. North Carolina is one of only two states left in the country with this unfair and ineffective policy. State House leadership has pledged to give a committee hearing to legislation that would raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction, and it’s our hope that 2012 will be the year that legislators implement this long overdue policy change.

K-12 Education Reform

In late April, Senate President Pro Tem Philip Berger proposed a new initiative to significantly alter our public school system. His recommendations include a new focus on literacy for children entering the fourth grade, greater accountability for students and schools, and the elimination of teacher tenure. While many of the goals of Senator Berger’s reform package are laudable and some of the ideas are solid, the package itself fails to pair adequate resources with the new mandates. We can do a better job with our public schools and children’s advocates look forward to providing guidance and feedback as the Senate debates its plan.

Of course, these issues are certainly not the only ones facing children in 2012. Many others – from funding for tobacco prevention and cessation to infant mortality prevention to higher education – are also critically important.

One question, however, lies at the heart of the debates surrounding virtually every such matter: Will North Carolina lawmakers work to repair and rebuild the public systems and solutions that give vulnerable children a fighting chance or will they continue the general retreat they sounded in 2011? Those who care about our state’s future should pay close attention.

Rob Thompson is the Executive Director of the Covenant with North Carolina’s Children.