RALEIGH – North Carolina was one of five states meeting all quality benchmarks in its state-run pre-kindergarten program last year, when funding for the program that prepares at-risk 4-year-olds for school was cut by 20 percent, according to a national report released Tuesday.
Only North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Alaska and Rhode Island met education quality standards that included class sizes of fewer than 20 children, teachers who held bachelor’s degrees, and feeding students at least one meal on site, the report by Rutgers University’s National Institute for Early Education Research said.
North Carolina’s program — which until last year was called More At Four — met all 10 of NIEER’s quality standards while spending $126 per child less than researchers estimated would be necessary. Funding from all sources for the renamed North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten program totaled $7,910 in 2011, the report said, compared with $11,669 per child by spending leader New Jersey.
Per-child spending on North Carolina’s pre-kindergarten program has dropped by about $400 in the two recession-scarred years since 2009, said NIEER director Steven Barnett.
Funding limited how many students the North Carolina program could reach, and the state ranked 19th for the percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled in pre-K, the report said. North Carolina was one of nine states that saw a drop in pre-K enrollment last year, the report said.
“In North Carolina, you’ve got a good program with high standards that’s proven effective, but you’re reducing the number of children who can go and you’re cutting the funding,” Barnett said.
Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, who leads a legislative committee examining early childhood education, did not return calls seeking comment.
North Carolina’s program targets children whose families earn below the statewide average, who have a disability or chronic health problem, come from a family that doesn’t speak English at home, or have parents on active military duty.
Thirty-nine states offer early-childhood education because studies have shown kids enrolled in quality programs do better academically, are less likely to spend time in prison later and make more money as adults. Children from low-income families who start kindergarten without any schooling are estimated to start school 18 months behind their peers, a gap that is extremely difficult to overcome.
States such as Florida that substitute inexpensive child care for high-quality early education won’t see the improvements in the classroom that will close the learning gap for poor children, the report said.
NC Pre-K’s funding last year became a flashpoint between the Republican-led General Assembly, Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue, and a state judge responsible for ruling whether the state is living up to its constitutional duties to provide children with a sound, basic education.
The Legislature’s $32 million cut in state support led to nearly 6,200 fewer slots in NC Pre-K as of October, according to a report by the state health agency assigned oversight of the program last year. The service is now available to 24,700 children. About 67,000 children are eligible.
The judge last summer ruled no eligible child can be turned away from the free preschool education and rejected requiring co-pays for enrolled families. Legislative leaders have contested the ruling in court out of concern the judge’s ruling would saddle North Carolina with a large, expensive entitlement program.
Perdue’s administration estimated it could cost as much as $300 million to serve all eligible children within the next four years.
A legislative committee exploring the program last month backed off on earlier proposals to fully privatize the program and limit assistance to children living at or below the poverty level — a departure from current income threshold rules that allow more children to qualify.
In December, North Carolina was awarded $70 million in a federal Race to the Top grant to improve the NC Pre-K program among nine states sharing $500 million. The money is to be used to improve the program’s quality and can’t be used to expand it, Perdue’s office said.