This is the post I didn’t want to write.
On Thursday night, a successful amendment to the House budget by Mecklenburg County Representative Carla Cunningham stripped funding from Representative Craig Horn’s Virtual Pre-K pilot program initiative and transferred the money to the Department of Public Instruction’s Students in Crisis grants, which aim to “increase school safety by providing evidence-based and evidence-informed crisis services and training to help students develop healthy responses to trauma and stress.”
It was a short-lived victory.
On Friday, at the eleventh hour of budget negotiations, Representative Lewis’s amendment to restore that funding for Virtual Pre-K passed. Now the ball is in the Senate’s court.
To recap, the Virtual Pre-K pilot program will provide in-home access to online preschool for four year olds who are living below the federal poverty line.
In his impassioned speech to the House K-12 Education Committee last month, Horn vowed that his goal was merely to provide educational opportunities to those who would not be attending a real Pre-K program anyway and that Virtual Pre-K was not in any way intended to be a replacement for high quality Pre-K. Furthermore, he claimed Virtual Pre-K would be accompanied by continued expansion of access to Pre-K. (You can actually hear him make that claim here.)
Neither Representative Horn nor any of his colleagues proposed expanded access to Pre-K in this year’s House budget.
North Carolina has received national attention for the quality of its Pre-K program, which research has proven reduces special education placement and the likelihood of children repeating a grade between 3rd and 8th grade as well as improving reading and math assessment results in both elementary and middle school. Unfortunately, that national attention has also called out state funding for Pre-K as being entirely inadequate.
Earlier this year, the National Institute for Early Education Research called on North Carolina lawmakers to do a better job of providing young children with the foundation they need to be successful in school:
NC Pre-K now reaches less than half (47 percent) the children it was designed to serve. Significant numbers of young children–almost 33,000–across all races and ethnicities, in both rural and urban areas, are losing the opportunity to develop foundational skills needed to succeed in school and beyond. In fact, 40 counties are serving less than half of eligible children.
While children may be attending other early education programs, those programs do not provide all the quality components of NC Pre-K—so those vulnerable children are less likely to gain the lasting benefits provided by NC Pre-K.
But back to the Craig Horn and Virtual Pre-K. Not only did Horn and his colleagues fail to even propose expanding access to NC Pre-K in the current budget, Horn’s Virtual Pre-K legislation calls for testing the feasibility of expanding Virtual Pre-K ‘to all preschool-age children in the State.’
(ii) test the feasibility of scaling a home-based curriculum in reading, math, and science delivered by computers and the Internet to all preschool-age children in the State.
This legislation opens the door to lawmakers backing away from funding legitimate Pre-K in favor of an approach they can frame as innovative ‘personalized learning’ for young children.
Our children deserve access to a quality preschool education. They deserve to be provided with the opportunity to interact with other children and develop skills of collaboration and communication that will serve as a critical foundation as they transition to elementary school. They won’t get that in front of a screen.
*Update: to those who have commented that this year’s budget does in fact include an expansion of Pre-K in North Carolina:
Representative Horn’s exact comment to the K-12 Education Committee was “We may, and I think we will, continue to expand access for Pre-K.” He clearly was speculating that there would be continued moves by the legislature to expand Pre-K beyond what is already on the books.
This year there are statutory increases to Pre-K in the base budget which were signed into law more than a year ago (here). The proposed House budget does not include any additional expansion. The only new legislation around Pre-K is Horn’s pilot program of virtual preschool.
Last year the federal government gave North Carolina $74 million to expand PreK programs. Our N.C. representatives voted to give $50 million of that to something else. Maybe we’d have more than 47% of low income students in actual PreK programs if we’d use the money the federal government gives us the way it’s intended.