Life handed the General Assembly lemons, and they’re making…
Well, for the time being they’re still just lemons. But recent developments at the General Assembly in the form of a legislative study committee could mitigate some of the Republican-controlled legislature’s public relations woes surrounding the state’s celebrated Pre-Kindergarten (formerly More at Four) program. Such legislative action could transform recent events into some proverbial lemonade, or perhaps something less savory.
While the latter half of the adage is still playing out, NC legislative Republicans were indisputable recipients of some pretty pungent lemons this year. A Superior Court decision by Judge Howard Manning ruled that the state’s exemplary Pre-K program was unconstitutional and had to be restructured to provide access to all children deemed “at-risk” of academic failure. The bill for such a citrusy load could surpass $300 million and comes on the heels of Republican budget balancing which sewed up a $2 billion shortfall. Not an easy task.
To make matters worse, budget writers got stuck with the bill from policies implemented long before their control over the legislature. According to Manning’s ruling, the state has been out of compliance with its constitutional obligations to provide free at-risk Pre-K for seven years.
On the face of the matter, providing the state’s Pre-K program to all at-risk children is a well-intentioned objective and some may hold the opinion that the legislature should swallow the bitter pill, price tag and all.
However, the legislature is beginning to study the definition of “at-risk”, a key term with crucial semantic value. This term has been molded and mended, revised and expanded over the years to fit different legislative priorities. How lawmakers define this term has a significant impact in shaping the size and scope of the Pre-K program. Now it seems the legislature is examining the “at-risk” criteria as part of their strategy for dealing with the Manning decision.
Over the ten year life of the Pre-K program, the term “at-risk” has undergone at least four major shifts in its definition, expanding the label to include newer groups of children or refocusing service priorities. In some cases, the “at-riskness” of certain groups of children is rather questionable. For example, a family could receive free Pre-K if their child has asthma or childhood obesity, regardless of their income.
According to a presentation given by Dr. Patsy Pierce of the legislature’s Research Division, there have been several episodes of expansion for the definition of “at-risk”. A shift in income eligibility criteria from federal poverty guidelines to a higher eligibility standard of 75% of the State Median Income (SMI) occurred in 2004. For a family of three, federal poverty guidelines set annual income levels around $18,500 while 75 percent of SMI hovers around $36,000, thus increasing eligibility standards by over $15,000 a year. The eligibility change marked a significant expansion in the population defined as “at-risk.” A few years later in 2007, military families regardless of income were added to the list of free Pre-K recipients. Furthermore, the 2011-12 budget bill removed the 300 percent federal poverty level cap on income levels for children with other at-risk factors. Now, children with conditions like childhood obesity or asthma can receive free Pre-K services regardless of income.
Perdue orders $30 million payment towards Pre-K by January
Late Monday afternoon, Governor Bev Perdue made a public request to the legislature, entreating the General Assembly to appropriate $30 million towards the Pre-K program in order to add 6,300 children to the rolls by January. In a press release issued on Perdue’s website, the Governor declared the following:
“Not only are we under a court order to provide NC Pre-K services to every at-risk child who applies, but we know that investing in early childhood education pays dividends,” Gov. Perdue said. “NC Pre-K is a nationally-recognized academic prekindergarten program that benefits not just each individual child served, but the state’s education system as a whole. This is because when all students enter elementary school ready to learn, all children have a better chance to succeed in school and in life.”
The response from the childcare establishment was swift. The North Carolina Partnership for Children, upset over budget cuts and executive salary caps, immediately issued the following statement through their Board Chair, Dr. Olson Huff:
“In asking for funds to provide more at-risk children with quality preschool, Governor Perdue is heeding Superior Court Judge Howard Manning’s decision in the ongoing Leandro case.”
Gov. Perdue claims to have identified available sources of funding that could allow the General Assembly to reappropriate funding toward NC Pre-K without raising taxes and without throwing the budget out of balance. This funding will come from unspent – and not yet appropriated – monies from last fiscal year’s budget ($27 million) and siphoning $3 million from the Contingency and Emergency Fund, traditionally used in natural disasters.
While Republican leadership in the General Assembly have not yet made any public comment on the matter, it seems that the heat will be on the legislature to take some legislative action. With dueling pressures from Judge Howard Manning and the Governor, Republicans are under the spotlight, so to speak. With a study committee to assess at-risk criteria just barely underway, legislative leadership will need to be quick on their feet to respond to both the policy and public relations battles that will accompany this issue.