The end of pre-K as we know it

The House and Senate budgets’ move of More at Four out of DPI and into Health and Human Services and the Division of Child Development (DCD) is no simple change of administrative scenery. It destroys pre-kindergarten as we now know it by hindering access for most of the neediest children, splintering local, state and federal pre-kindergarten funding and administration efforts, and degrading teacher quality.

The irony of the change is heavy. The General Assembly budgets propose smaller class sizes in the early grades and reading components in new early childhood curricula and third grade. They do this in order to get every child reading by third grade, yet the best early literacy program of all – More at Four – is upended. In addition, the changes undermine ongoing coordination and alignment of pre-kindergarten with K-3 within education. This is surely not the way to capitalize on learning gains in pre-kindergarten.

Limiting Access

The House and Senate budget proposals move state pre-kindergarten into the regulatory and funding world of child-care. This shift introduces co-pays for parents who meet income eligibility requirements. This introduction plus new (mandated) competition for places from full fee-paying parents will squeeze low-income children and their families.

Despite current ‘child-find’ processes in the child-care subsidy system, co-pay requirements mean many of the poorest children never see child-care. More at Four, on the other hand, is free to low-income and developmentally-challenged four year olds and prioritizes those children who have never been previously served. In 2010-11, more than 17,000 children, or 55% of all MAF children, were never previously served by any formal childcare when they started their More at Four year.

That is a far greater number of children than the 20% of the total population in the new program who, characterized at risk ‘regardless of income’, would be eligible for co-pay waivers.

The absence of income-based waivers means new co-payments for four year olds will be a huge barrier to access for children from the poorest families. These families will have to make the agonizing choice between basic comforts or their child’s early education. Families with three children on $20K per year aren’t going to pay $2000 to send a child to pre-kindergarten.

Splintering pre-kindergarten efforts

The introduction of co-pays ends the ongoing and tightening coordination of federal, state, local and locally-expended federal education dollars for pre-kindergarten and makes for a newly fractured pre-k system. The end of state education pre-k will cost the state $40M+ a year in locally-contributed federal funds (IDEA, Title I) that is combined at the classroom level. The remaining federal pre-kindergarten money (Title I, IDEA, Headstart) will remain under DPI and local school districts, as state money gets tipped into child-care.

Public school participation in the new program administered by HHS will be hampered by double regulation – by public schools and by HHS child care regulations. That is a big development given that currently two-thirds of pre-kindergarten children are in public schools.

The two sets of regulations differ and compliance promises to be costly in some circumstances. In addition, the chilling effect of fees on public school participation is considerable. Free public schools are not fee gathering institutions. The double regulation of public schools under the new budget is already leading many school districts to pull out of four year old state-funded education.

The result of the General Assembly budgets is a dual system of administration for four year old education in North Carolina; one state-run through private childcare and DCD, the other federal and run through the public schools. This is not a streamlined administrative system.

Degrading teacher quality

Legislators promoting early reading programs should take note: ten years of independent evaluations conclude that learning rates of children in More at Four classrooms are well above developmental expectations, especially in the key areas of early reading and writing. Moreover, evaluations have found that teachers who have attained the More at Four requirements of a four year degree and a Birth-Kindergarten license produce greater early literacy learning gains in their students than those with lesser training, and they do so regardless of the student’s proficiency level at the start of the year. Simply put, appropriately qualified teachers have the skills necessary to effectively teach diverse classrooms of four year olds critical early literacy skills.

Teachers who do not have four year degrees are unlikely to get the job done. You get what you pay for. If pre-kindergarten is gutted, kiss goodbye More at Four’s key achievement in closing the achievement gap between economically-disadvantaged and middle class children in third grade reading and math. If state pre-kindergarten is moved to a child-care world of longer days and a longer year where the aim is to serve similar or greater numbers of children than now, but with 20% less dollars, then it can only be done at the expense of teacher quality.

Reckless indifference?

The changes must be necessary because More at Four isn’t working right, right? Not exactly. More at Four is nationally recognized and ranks tops in the nation for quality the last six years, according to early childhood experts at Rutgers University. We know that learning growth among More at Four students averages well above developmental expectations, and is highest for children who start the farthest behind or have the most severe disabilities. We know that the effects of this learning growth are evident in higher third grade tests scores for low-income children. More at Four is closing the economic status achievement gap. What other education intervention in North Carolina can claim this?

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