By Rose Hoban

Fewer families in North Carolina will be eligible to send their children to state-funded pre-kindergarten programs under a bill that passed the House of Representatives Health and Human Services Committee Tuesday.

The bill lowers income eligibility from 75 percent of the state median income level to 100 percent of the federal poverty level, a change that cuts the income eligibility effectively in half.

It also makes other changes to the definition of “at risk.”

“Eligibility is up here,” said bill sponsor Rep. Justin Burr (R-Albemarle), holding his hand at eye level, “and funding is down here,” he said, moving his hand to chest level.

Holly Springs resident Jamie Jensen brought her 3-year-old daughter JoAnna to the General Assembly to advocate for NC Pre-K funding.
Holly Springs resident Jamie Jensen brought her 3-year-old daughter, JoAnna, to the General Assembly Tuesday to advocate for NC Pre-K funding.

“What you’re seeing is an effort to bring eligibility down to something we can fund and increase the funding up to that same amount.”

Burr maintained that moving the levels would bring North Carolina more in line with national standards.

“Even by reducing the eligibility down to what we proposed, there will still be need for additional funding to fund all those kids who are considered at risk by this new definition,” Burr said.

Current guidelines also allow for children whose parents are active-duty military service members to be eligible for Pre-K, as well as children who are developmentally disabled and require individualized education plans, children who have limited English proficiency and children who have chronic illnesses.

The bill would reduce eligibility from families making about $51,000 for a family of four to about $23,500 for the same family size and eliminate slots for children with chronic illnesses and those with language challenges. The changes would shrink the pool of eligible children from more than 60,000 under current standards to about 44,000 under the new standards.

“There will still be more children than slots,” Burr said. “Even reducing this definition down and trying to focus on kids who are at the lowest level on this definition, to make sure they’re served, we’ll still have to work to address funding of additional slots.”

For the past few years, cuts in funding have left the program with significant waiting lists. Last year, a court of appeals upheld a ruling by Superior Court Judge Howard Manning that ordered the state to provide Pre-K education for any “at risk” children.

The income changes troubled Jamie Jensen, who came to the hearing from Holly Springs with her 3-year-old daughter, JoAnna who is poised to start the program in September. Her 5-year-old, Olivia, is currently in the Pre-K program.

“I’m not happy with this,” Jenson, 26, said. “If this passes, we’d make too much money.”

She said her husband, who works nights doing engineering support at NetApp in Research Triangle Park, makes a salary in the mid-$30,000s, while she has stayed home with their children.

“Preschool and day care is expensive, and I couldn’t make enough to cover two children,” Jensen said. “It’s $1,000 a month per child. I couldn’t make that much in a year. I’m educated, but there’s nothing available.”

Jensen said her younger daughter plays “school” with her older daughter and is now excited to get started.

“The teachers are fantastic, the program is just amazing and I want other children to have the experience that we’ve had,” Jensen said. “I’m grateful for programs like this that can help me.

Rep. Verla Insko (D-Chapel Hill) said she was distressed that the bill would cut income eligibility.

“There are many, many ways we could provide funding and expand this program,” she said, suggesting that upcoming tax-reform legislation should close loopholes to free funds for services.

“All the new jobs that pay well are high tech,” Insko said. “These children enter kindergarten behind already. We’re not taking care of our own future if we don’t make these children ready to succeed when they get into kindergarten.

“This is an investment we need to make in our children and our state, and in our country, and we need to find a way to do it.”

“Those kids end up with no Pre-K and they start off school behind other kids,” said Rob Thompson, head of the Covenant with North Carolina’s Children, a group that advocates for policies to benefit children. “We’re not going to see the type of achievement at third-grade level with reading scores and math scores that you would see if they did participate in the program.”

“There’s a whole set of kids out there, a lot of them, whose families can’t afford pre-kindergarten, and we just carved a lot of those kids out from being able to get into the program,” Thompson said.

The bill passed the committee by a wide margin, and heads to the floor of the House.

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Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...