NC should pull the plug on virtual pre-K

It’s the latest shockingly bad education policy idea out of North Carolina’s General Assembly.

A provision in the proposed House budget would establish a 3-year pilot program to deliver Pre-K education at home via computer to what it terms “at risk” four-year-olds.

The UpStart program would be available to North Carolina families living below the federal poverty line and would provide internet access at home to families that can’t afford it and technical support to help them operate the software.

North Carolina Virtual Pre-K is the pet project of Union County Representative and House K-12 Education Committee chair Craig Horn. Its introduction follows two years of lobbying by the same folks who lobby for the operator of North Carolina’s virtual charter schools — which are among the worst-performing schools in the state.

In an impassioned speech to his colleagues on the House K-12 committee, Horn claimed the new program was not meant as a substitute for high quality pre-K, saying it was intended only for underserved children who are not able to attend pre-K for a variety of reasons. He added that he was convinced the General Assembly would continue to expand pre-K opportunities for North Carolina’s children in the future. He did not explain why the new legislation includes a plan to test the feasibility of offering online preschool to all preschool-age children in the state.

The virtual pre-K proposal comes at a time when the nation’s foremost early childhood education experts are increasingly united in their opposition to online preschool. Last year more than 100 of them signed a statement calling for an end to virtual preschool programs and imploring policymakers to instead “invest in fully-funded, relationship-based, universal prekindergarten programs with proven long-term benefits.”

In fact, North Carolina has received national attention for the quality of its pre-K program. Research has shown our program reduces special education placement and the likelihood of children repeating a grade between 3rd and 8th grade, and it improves assessment results in both elementary and middle school. Unfortunately, that national attention has also called out North Carolina’s funding for pre-K as being inadequate, noting that it currently reaches fewer than half the students it was designed to serve.

This year’s proposed House budget does not expand legitimate pre-K beyond what had already been signed into law in past sessions. That funding does provide additional pre-K slots but still comes up well short of universal access.

It’s important to remember that virtual charter schools also were introduced as a limited pilot program. Legislators recently extended them through 2023 despite the terrible results they’re getting for the families they purport to serve. The General Assembly’s pattern of introducing limited programs then scaling them up without evidence of success also includes vouchers, regular charter schools and performance pay. There’s no reason to believe virtual pre-K will be any different — except that it could provide cover for lawmakers backing away from funding the quality early education that our children really deserve.

The virtual pre-K pilot program is just the most recent attempt to mask a serious legislative shortcoming by tossing a few dollars and a terrible idea at it. If we are sincere about wanting to prepare children for success in school, we will provide all of them them all with access to high-quality preschool.

Parmenter is a 7th grade Language Arts teacher at Waddell Language Academy.