Risk is the word of the day on Jones Street. “At-risk” that is.
A term used for deciding eligibility for the state’s Pre-K program (formerly More at Four), “at-risk” has had a rather fluid definition over the years. Now lawmakers are seeking to clarify, and perhaps alter, the state’s at-risk definition to tailor the program towards the truly disadvantaged populations of children it was intended to serve.
Lawmakers are studying this issue as a matter of necessity. A court order from Superior Court Judge Howard Manning as part of the state’s ongoing Leandro suits demanded North Carolina fund the state’s Pre-K program and extend access to all “at-risk” children. State agencies report the total number of children that could be eligible for Pre-K under the state’s current “at-risk” criteria could be in the neighborhood of 65,000.
With the writing on the wall, state legislators have found it convenient to re-evaluate the “at-risk” criteria. In order to ensure that Pre-K program resources are utilized by those who need it most, law makers should give special attention to the following issues:
- Chronic Health Problem: This criterion, while only comprising 5 percent of participating children (around 1,700 children in FY08-09), has more than doubled over the studied years of the program’s existence (2001-2009). A “Chronic Health Problem” can include children with childhood obesity or asthma, conditions that have a dubious impact on risk of academic failure. In previous years, there was an income cap on participants made eligible by this criterion. While this cap used to hold at 300 percent of the federal poverty level (around $67,000 for a family of four in 2011), this cap was removed in 2007, allowing all children with obesity or asthma, et al., to become eligible for free Pre-K. Today a family earning well over $100,000 a year could receive Pre-K if their children are determined to be “obese” by the state’s criteria.
- Participants above the Free/Reduced Lunch Threshold: At More at Four/Pre-K’s inception, the income eligibility standards were set at the free/reduced lunch level set by federal guidelines. In 2004, the income guidelines were relaxed to allow children from families earning up to 75 percent of the State Median Income (SMI) (around $44,000 a year for a family of four) to become eligible under the program’s income standards, according to a Legislative Research Division report by Dr. Patsy Pierce. Participants above the free/reduced lunch level comprised around 12 percent or over 4,000 children in FY08-09.
- Military Families: In 2007, the eligibility guidelines for Pre-K were once again expanded, this time to allow children with active duty military parent(s) to gain access to the program if their parent(s) have been on active duty within the last 18 months or are expected to go on active duty in the next 18 months. Military eligibility is not technically considered “at-risk” and military families are not subject to the 20 percent cap placed on participants who are made eligible by criteria other than income eligibility, thus increasing their chance of getting into the program. North Carolina prides itself on being a military-friendly state and it is certainly commendable to assist military families. However, this eligibility criterion does not take into account the earnings of military participants in providing access to free Pre-K. This allows the children of a general or other high-ranking and well-compensated officer to receive free Pre-K. By not capping income levels on active duty military families, program services are provided to families who could comfortably pay for it on their own, thereby diverting funding from those who can’t.
Revising the at-risk formula is, as its name would suggest, risky. The kind of risk it involves is one of the most fear-inspiring for state lawmakers as we quickly approach an election year: political risk. If legislative action were to cut families from participating in this entitlement program, there are sure to be reprisals at the ballot box, justified or not.
Nevertheless, the General Assembly is stuck between a rock and a hard place as Governor Perdue (and especially the Democratic Party) are in the early stages of turning up the political heat to campaign on what has traditionally been a Democrat talking point: early education.