Double-standard in defining poverty could limit educational opportunities for some

Education is perhaps the most promising public investment for promoting long-term economic prosperity. That’s why providing low-income children access to preschool and providing a high-quality education to all students in North Carolina’s public schools is vital to our state’s future.

Yet, policymakers have introduced education bills that inconsistently define “poverty” and “at-risk” in ways that would reduce access to early learning for low-income 4-year olds and divert needed public school funding to private schools.

House Bill 935 would make certain low-income families ineligible for the NC Pre-K program by changing the definition of low-income from about 200 percent to 130 percent of the federal poverty level (from $47,100 for a family of four down to $30,615). As a result, fewer low-income 4-year olds would benefit from early learning, which provides up to $13 in benefits for every $1 of investment.

Meanwhile, House Bill 944 spends $90 million to pay for low-income students to attend private schools, but the definition of low-income is dramatically different. This bill uses a far more generous definition for low-income, allowing families with income up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level ($70,650 for a family of four) to qualify for this program, creating a dangerous double-standard. In this case, different definitions of poverty result in public dollars for private schools being favored over public investment in early education.

For example, a family of four with income of $33,000 qualifies for assistance through the voucher program but not for the NC Pre-K program because policymakers defined economic need differently. Research clearly demonstrates that low-income students receive life-changing educational and social benefits as a result of participating in NC Pre-K, while there is no evidence that low-income students benefit whatsoever from participation in voucher schemes.

Education has long been considered the great equalizer that opens the doors of opportunity. Limiting access to early education and reducing investment in public education by subsidizing private education threatens this promise. North Carolina’s ability to compete economically depends on the quality of its workforce, and committing ourselves to early education and quality public schools is key to our success.

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