Mending the damage to pre-k

Governor Perdue issued Wednesday an Executive Order (EO) aimed at sustaining high quality pre-kindergarten in the context of rapid administrative change and large budget cuts. The EO significantly furthers state compliance with Judge Manning’s recent court order that there be free access to high quality pre-k (NCPK) for all at-risk four year-olds. It is the right and necessary thing to do.

The EO directs the new DHHS administration, in consultation with DPI, to remove any barrier to access for at-risk children, maintain existing (More at Four) pre-k education standards and preserve public school participation in order that the state may fulfill constitutional responsibilities.

The EO further directs close coordination between the Early Childhood Advisory Council (ECAC), DPI and the State Board of Education, and the Division of Child Development and Early Education (DCDEE) in the transition, establishment and ongoing administration of pre-k in order to preserve quality and maximize access for at-risk four year-olds.

In doing so, the EO addresses legitimate concerns that the significant administrative changes to pre-k, in the context of a 20% budget reduction and the recent Manning court order, would lead to a degradation of education quality.

It is well within reason to expect at-risk child enrollment in pre-k to hit 40 000 in the Spring 2012 semester as a result of Judge Manning’s order. Enrollment could be many thousands more. Assuming the cost per child to deliver a similar quality education remains more or less unchanged from last year to this (the cost savings from the budget’s administrative changes are minor), the dollars will run out sometime in early Spring, the school year will end early and constitutional rights will be breached. The prognosis gets murky.

So the pressure to erode quality to generate savings is huge. But pre-k on the cheap that use teachers poorly trained and ill-equipped to teach diverse classrooms of poor and disabled children has not, and not surprisingly, been terribly effective when compared to pre-k driven by quality standards that treat pre-k for what it is – another grade. And since academic pre-k is now an essential part of the constitutional right to a sound, basic education, a newly ineffective pre-k on-the-cheap raises constitutional issues.

The Governor’s Order addresses any temptation to dumb down pre-k: don’t do it. The teacher quality standards that have been proven to produce greater learning gains in the high-performing More at Four program are directed to be maintained. Pre-k academic standards are ordered preserved, and a new plan to maintain a high and effective effort to enroll every at-risk four year old in the state is required from DPI and DCDEE by October 10. Higher education institutions are encouraged to offer accelerated time-to-completion degrees in early education to assist workforce development.

The Order recognizes the critical role of the public schools in academic pre-k and ensures that public school pre-k access is not lost to at-risk children. Private pay children will not be required to be blended in public pre-k classrooms, and new burdensome and double-regulatory requirements created by the budget legislation will be waived if access for at-risk children to a high quality pre-k classroom is threatened by public school capacity reductions caused by the new regulation.

Other significant problems caused by the recent budget changes are addressed by the Governor’s order. The ripping apart of federal from state and local pre-k dollars and the resulting straight dollar loss and new inefficiencies arising from newly fragmented funding streams was one of the more egregious results of the poorly conceived budget plan. The Governor has ordered that DPI assist the new custodians of pre-k at DCDEE in putting the fiscal pieces back together – a process enabled by pre-kindergarten once-again being free to at-risk children following Manning’s order.

The Executive Order goes a long way to repair the harm done by the reckless slash and burn of the 2011-13 budget on early childhood education and care. The carefully put together pieces that underpinned a state pre-kindergarten that was the envy of the nation have been mostly brought back, and can be mostly put back together. The Governor’s actions will be hugely beneficial to some of our neediest children. But the huge budget cuts to early childhood point to a day in Spring 2012 where a constitutionally-mandated education program meets an empty bank account.

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