School's out for summer... and, for some, for the rest of the year

Jun. 10, 2013 @ 12:28 PM

It's officially summer! Time for hot, lazy days, playing outside, swimming and NO SCHOOL. Yes, our kids are eagerly anticipating summer vacation. But if pending legislation passes the General Assembly this summer, thousands of preschoolers won't have a school to go back to come September.

Gov. Pat McCrory and President Barack Obama have both recently proposed investments to increase children's access to high-quality, affordable pre-K. Obama would make grants to states to begin building up to universal pre-K. McCrory would add 5,000 additional slots to NC Pre-K, North Carolina's preschool system for disadvantaged 4-year-olds.

Our leaders are on to something. Research by top economists shows that investment in early education offers among the highest returns on investment, compared to other social spending. Long-term studies have shown that children given access to high-quality preschool are more likely to stay in school, graduate from high school, attend college, hold a job, own their own homes and make more money than their counterparts. They are less likely to repeat grades, require special education services or get into trouble with the law. That means more lifetime earnings and less lifetime spending by taxpayers.

A group of Charlotte businessmen partnered with the organization America's Edge to release a report last month on the impending "skills gap" between what North Carolina workers know how to do and what the increasingly technical workplace is going to demand of them. The group found that North Carolina will face a shortage of 46,000 workers over the next decade because workers' skills don't match up with the abilities needed by employers.

One of the report's two recommendations was to increase access to high-quality early education. As Harvey Schmitt, president and CEO of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce is quoted as saying in the report, "How do we ensure our graduates have the skills that are key to sustained economic growth? The answer may surprise you: Start educating our children earlier and do it better."

Historically, North Carolina has been a national leader in high quality early care and education. Our state was one of the first to develop a system that both helped parents choose childcare and steadily improved the quality of childcare over time.

The National Institute for Early Education Research noted that in 2012, North Carolina was one of only four states in the nation that met all 10 benchmarks for high-quality pre-K.

Due to state budget cuts and a bill making its way through the N.C. General Assembly, however, North Carolina's award-winning pre-K system -- and the vulnerable children it serves -- are in jeopardy. The same NIEER report mentioned above also notes that North Carolina was one of the two states that reduced pre-K enrollment the most over the past two years, due to budget cuts. Now a bill moving quickly through the legislature would reduce enrollment in NC Pre-K still further.  

The bill (House Bill 935) would change the definition of an “at-risk” child, cutting the maximum income level for those eligible for the program to the federal poverty level -- about $23,000 for a family of four. The new definition could cut the number of children eligible for NC Pre-K by a third. A provision added during the final House debate would allow the pre-K program to provide services for children in families with incomes up to 130 percent of the federal poverty level "as funds are available," but these children would be unlikely to receive funding in such tight budget times.

While children from all backgrounds benefit from high quality, affordable early education, at-risk children (such as those from low-income families or with disabilities or limited English proficiency) often show the greatest gains in cognitive, language and social skills. Reducing eligibility for the NC Pre-K program will hurt the very children who stand to gain the most from high-quality early education.

It may be summer vacation for the kids, but the state House and Senate are still toiling away. Let's hope that before the start of school in the fall, they put an end to these plans to exclude thousands of children from the classroom. Kids love summer vacation, but it's not supposed to last all year.

Deborah Bryan is the executive director of Action for Children North Carolina.