RALEIGH — Gov. Beverly Perdue said Thursday she is shifting $20 million in projected spare funds to accommodate up to another 6,300 4-year-olds in the state’s pre-kindergarten academic enrichment program, again moving into disputed territory with the Republican-led Legislature.
Perdue issued an executive order authorizing the expansion of North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten, a program previously called More At Four.
It was nearly two months ago that a unanimous three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeals upheld a lower court decision that changes by the Republican-led General Assembly would deprive most from benefiting. The changes included a 20 percent funding cut.
The General Assembly this summer reversed controversial changes that limited the number of slots for 4-year-olds the program was primarily created to help — those at risk of falling behind their peers due to chronic health problems, or because their families were in financial hardship or did not speak English at home.
“After the General Assembly cut early education programs by 20 percent, thousands of our youngest students were cut out of the Pre-K classroom. Today we can welcome many of them in,” Perdue said in a prepared statement.
State House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, and Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said this summer they wanted to appeal the appeals court ruling. The GOP leaders said in a statement that any spare money Perdue could find in DHHS should be used to plug gaps in rising Medicaid costs rather than “a temporary expansion of government daycare.”
NC Pre-K now enrolls about 25,000 children, down from about 35,000 in 2010 before the funding cuts. Estimates are that about 67,000 children statewide may be eligible, but Perdue’s administration has estimated helping them all could cost taxpayers up to $300 million a year.
Classroom space and teachers are available to quickly enroll another 1,000 children on waiting lists, Perdue’s office said. Nearly 11,700 children are on waiting lists for the program, according to the advocacy group Covenant with North Carolina’s Children.
“Gov. Perdue’s decision means that over 6,000 more children will enter kindergarten better prepared to succeed in school and in life,” said the group’s executive director, Rob Thompson.
The pre-kindergarten program was enacted after the state Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that North Carolina’s constitutional guarantees of a right to a sound, basic education include providing pre-kindergarten services for at-risk children.
Perdue’s office said extra funding will shifted from other areas within the Department of Health and Human Services, where lawmakers moved the program’s administration. The money will be distributed to counties before Perdue’s four-year term ends this year to fund the expanded enrollment through the rest of the current academic year.