Perdue adds 6,300 slots in NC Pre-K program
by Kellen Moore
About 1,000 of those slots can be filled immediately, with the rest to follow in the coming months, she said.
Perdue said the additional costs will be paid for with $20 million in “projected unspent funds” from the Department of Health and Human Services.
Now, Watauga County Schools is waiting to see how much funding will filter down to the local level.
“Until every at-risk child who wants to be in N.C. Pre-K is enrolled, the state hasn’t done enough,” Perdue said. “But today at least we are making progress toward fulfilling our legal — and moral — obligation to our children.”
The N.C. Pre-Kindergarten Program, formerly known as More at Four, is a state-funded program designed to prepare at-risk 4-year-olds for later success in school.
About 25,000 children are currently enrolled statewide.
Advocates for the program say it makes at-risk children better prepared for later learning and saves millions that would be spent on early grade retention, remedial programs and dropout prevention.
“There is a brief window of time in which we can help these children,” said Al Delia, acting secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. “Once they turn five, we’ve missed our opportunity to help them be better prepared for kindergarten and the rest of their educational careers.”
The seemingly innocuous program has become a political fight in the past several years and has called into question the scope of the state constitution’s requirements for public education.
On Aug. 21, the N.C. Court of Appeals agreed with a lower court’s mandate that the state may not deny any eligible, at-risk 4-year-old from enrolling in the pre-K program.
Perdue’s announcement relies on a statute that permits an agency to spend more than was authorized in the budget for a program if that overexpenditure is required by a court order.
The governor directed the Department of Health and Human Services to identify anticipated unspent funds in the budget and to transfer that money to the division that oversees pre-K.
The department is now determining where to pull that money and how to divvy it out to the local providers.
“I know they’re working on the system to try to figure out where additional children will be added,” said DHHS spokeswoman Lori Walston. “They’re working as quickly as they can to get the children into the classrooms.”
In Watauga County, about 50 to 60 children with risk factors are currently on a waiting list for pre-K, Superintendent David Kafitz said Friday.
“We provided that information to (DHHS), and so we’re just kind of in a waiting pattern to see what dollar allotments we would get to further extend our programs,” Kafitz said. “… I would hope that we would get enough money to accommodate all of them, but we’ll wait and see.”
Watauga County Schools announced in July that it would cut its pre-K program nearly in half, closing four sites at Bethel, Mabel, Blowing Rock and Valle Crucis and admitting 90 instead of 162 children.
After further review, the system was recently able to open at half-class at Valle Crucis Elementary serving nine children, Kafitz said.
Kafitz said the sites at Bethel and Mabel may be considered in particular if the county receives additional funding, but that all options are on the table.
Perdue’s executive order called upon the General Assembly to appropriate the required money to enroll all at-risk students in pre-K during the next legislative session, which starts in January.
But with the end of her term only months away, her action this week makes no promises for next year and beyond.
“This is one-time money,” Kafitz said. “Unfortunately, the people we’re going to hire, they’ll be interim through the end of the year.”