Weekly Briefing

Saying “no” to poor kids…again

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House Committee advances bill to cut pre-K eligibility

One would think that, at some point, the folks running the North Carolina General Assembly would start to feel at least a little squeamish and sheepish about the cuts they are inflicting upon programs designed to help give vulnerable people a chance to succeed in our ever-more-stratified society.

One would think.

Unfortunately, we are still, by all indications, a long way from that point. Indeed, lawmakers seem quite happy with the path they are on.

And so the mean-spirited and shortsighted cuts just keep on coming. Yesterday, the House Health and Human Services Committee voted to approve legislation sponsored and blithely championed by Rep. Justin Burr – a 27 year-old bail bondsman from the Stanly County — that would reduce eligibility for the state’s nationally acclaimed NC Pre-K program (formerly “More at Four”) by dramatically lowering the income threshold that confers eligibility.

Yes, you heard that right: In their wisdom, the members of the committee determined that our state will be better off if the threshold for Pre-K eligibility is the official federal poverty line (a marker that is, at $19,000 for a family of three, $23,550 for a family of four, widely recognized and dismissed as hopelessly inadequate) rather than roughly twice that level as it has long been. Current law sets eligibility at 75% of median income, which usually works out to be around twice the federal poverty level.

Under the proposal, kids living in families that bring home, say, $25,000 per year may soon be ineligible for public Pre-K. Mind you, the cost of private pre-K runs on the order $800 -$1,000 per month – or nearly half of the income of the $25,000 family.

But wait, the cuts don’t stop there. The bill would also eliminate LEP (limited English proficiency), chronic health conditions and developmental delays as eligibility criteria.

Moving in precisely the wrong direction

As with other obvious truths for pre-school children – be it the importance of avoiding excessive television and processed sugar or learning to read as early as possible – the notion that early childhood education is critically important to success seems intuitively beyond doubt.

Still, we are continuing to learn more and more about the subject. Just this week, Professor Sean Reardon of Stanford University published a fascinating article in the New York Times today (“No Rich Child Left Behind”) about what really lies at the root of the growing achievement gap in the American education system.

Here are some of his findings based on decades of painstaking research:

  • The gap between poor and rich kids is growing.
  • The gap is not about race as much as it is about income.
  • The gap is not a product of “failing” schools; average Americans are smarter and perform better than their parents.
  • Much of the gap is attributable to early childhood education — especially the challenging and stimulating upbringings that wealthy parents more typically provide to their pre-school children.
  • The gap appears to be self-reinforcing; smarter, higher achieving kids end up with better, higher-paying jobs and the wherewithal to help their children.
  • Improving our early childhood parenting and education may be even more important than improving our K-12 schools and teachers.

Here’s Professor Reardon:

“Investments in early-childhood education pay very high societal dividends. That means investing in developing high-quality child care and preschool that is available to poor and middle-class children. It also means recruiting and training a cadre of skilled preschool teachers and child care providers. These are not new ideas, but we have to stop talking about how expensive and difficult they are to implement and just get on with it.”

In other words, it’s simply absurd to contemplate reducing our commitment to early childhood education. If anything, we should be dramatically expanding it. State court orders have even made this the law in North Carolina.

Responding to the excuses

According to Rep. Burr and his colleagues, the reductions in his bill aren’t actually that big of a deal because North Carolina has never provided adequate funds to cover every eligible child anyway. Without any evident concern for the affected families, the lawmaker cheerfully told the committee that lowering eligibility will simply enable the state to target “children who are truly at-risk.”

But, of course, this is ridiculous on multiple levels.

First of all, the notion that only kids from families with incomes below 100% of the federal poverty line are “truly at-risk” is laughable. As a practical matter, all children who lack resources and/or educated and engaged parents are at-risk in our fast-developing world. The plain truth is that Pre-K ought to be universal and free just as it is in dozens of other advanced countries.

But even setting these obvious, larger truths aside, Burr’s argument makes no sense in the narrow context in which it was offered. The simple truth is that the change in the bill will end Pre-K for thousands of families and children who need it and who have been determined by experts on the ground to be priorities.

According to the experts at the Covenant with North Carolina’s Children, 35% of current NC Pre-K enrollees (about 9,500 children) come from families with incomes over 100% of the federal poverty line.

Rep. Burr says that it is a mistake to serve those 9,500 kids while others with even lower incomes go without. And, at some very simplistic level, he makes a minor point.

But if adjusting prioritization amongst the universe of kids who could benefit from NC Pre-K is the goal, there needs to be a conversation with experts about prioritization standards, not eligibility.

As the Covenant experts note, most counties already have a prioritization system to ensure the neediest families get NC Pre-K first. Local experts evaluate a large group of eligible kids and pick the ones who would benefit the most.

It is clearly a problem if any child who could benefit from pre-k is turned away. But, the obvious answer to this problem is to appropriate more money to cover more kids. On this score, a concerned mom from Apex made a good point yesterday when she told the committee to use some of the millions lawmakers intend to spend on their controversial voter ID program to expand NC Pre-K.

Two competing visions

Ultimately, the proposed legislation is about two very different visions of our future. In the vision championed by advocates for children and experts like Professor Reardon, pre-K is an absolute necessity for a large and growing number of children whom we fail to serve at our own risk. Rather than looking for excuses to cut eligibility and services, North Carolina should do all it can to keep the program as broad in scope as possible and continue to look for ways to expand funding as much and as quickly as possible.

In Rep. Burr’s cramped vision (and apparently that of the legislature’s conservative majority), however, public pre-K is – like so many other things – a narrow, niche program targeted at the poorest of the poor that serves only as many kids as legislators deign to fund.

Barring some unforeseen turn of events, it appears we will all be paying for their oblivious myopia for many years to come.

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