Editorial: Don’t delay pre-K funds

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Where thereís a will, thereís a way to find funds. That appears to be the case with North Carolinaís pre-kindergarten program for at-risk 4-year-olds, once called More at Four. The latest twist in the budget-cutting saga has Gov. Bev Perdue coming to the rescue of the program for this budget year with found money ó $27 million from unanticipated tax collections that werenít appropriated at the end of the fiscal year and $3 million from a special fund often used for rewarding crime solvers and paying for outside legal costs. Thatís almost enough to make up for the $32 million the Republican-led General Assembly cut from the program this year.
Judge Howard Manning ruled that the cuts in effect denied children their constitutional rights. Republicans rejected the order as the act of an activist judge, but Perdue has taken it and the pre-K program more seriously. The governor has been turning over every rock in the state budget to find funds to serve all eligible children, as the judge ordered.
But sheíll need the legislatureís approval to do it, and the proposal got a chilly reception from a health oversight committee on Tuesday. The $30 million find is only a stopgap. The panel received data suggesting pre-K spending would quickly jump up by $300 million annually if the program served all the eligible at-risk children. Where will that money come from, Republicans asked.
In Rowan County, the N.C. Prekindergarten program served 334 children last budget year. The program administrator is actually serving more this year ó 342 ó but only with the help of other funds. Pre-K program funds cover 267 slots, while Smart Start funds cover 73. Again, where thereís a will, thereís a way, and that is only a temporary fix.
But every slot counts, says John D. Gerstenmier, executive director of Smart Start Rowan, which handles both programs here. ěWe are innocent bystanders not wanting to be caught in the crossfire but very much wanting to serve the children,î he says.
Responsible budgeting requires the governor and lawmakers figure out where the money will come from in the future. But they also have a responsbility to the here and now. Several longterm studies suggest positive gains made in pre-K can have lifelong benefits ó higher levels of education, higher wages, lower rates of incarceration. This yearís 4-year-olds will be 4 only once. Denying them a pre-K program now when the money for it is available would be a waste of priceless developmental time.