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Pre-K Program Back In Budget Spotlight

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Kim Roney teaches children in an N.C. Pre-K class in Wake County.

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Kim Roney teaches children in an N.C. Pre-K class in Wake County. Photo: Michael Tomsic National experts on early education say North Carolina has one of the most respected pre-kindergarten programs in the country. But state budget cuts mean about 2,000 fewer children are going through it this school year. And some researchers, school administrators and teachers worry the cuts are watering down the program. Quick History of Pre-K in NC Back in 2001, North Carolina created the pre-k program to help children at risk of doing poorly in school. It was called More at Four then - it's for four-year-olds - and the state determined who got in based largely on family income. The idea was to make sure kids from poor families or with special needs weren't already behind by the time they got to kindergarten. And during the past ten years, it gained a national reputation for working. "It was really a model for other states," says Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research. He says "More at Four" was a national leader in terms of quality and adequate funding. But this school year, the state legislature cut about 20 percent of that funding. It also gave the program a new name - N.C. Pre-K - and changed the department that oversees it. "A Difficult Budget Year" State representative Justin Burr is one of the top Republicans in charge of early education. He says with a state budget shortfall of more than two billion dollars, legislators had to cut a lot of things. "We certainly had a very difficult budget year last year, one of the worst in the country," says Burr. "We had to make tough decisions to make reductions." But Burr says North Carolina is still spending more than $400 million preparing at-risk children for kindergarten. The pre-K reduction, though, means about 2,000 fewer children are in the program this school year. That number would've been more like 4,000 if not for Governer Bev Perdue moving money around in February to create new spots. In Wake County, there are about 50 fewer kids in the program. "Welcome to our class" Kim Roney leads her pre-K class in a friendly chorus of "welcome" to a visitor. And and another teacher set up stations throughout their Wake County classroom. Today they're learning about veterinarians. Roney says the cuts have made this year tough. She says she and the other teachers have had less training, support, and money to buy stuff for the classroom. And Pam Dowdy, the head of N.C. Pre-K in Wake County, says anything that affects the teachers, affects the kids. "Overall, you're just cutting quality of services to children," says Dowdy. "We started off trying to be more efficient and more effective, and then it was more with less, and then it was just the same with less, and now it's less with less." CMS Trims Other Services to Save Pre-K Spots Mecklenburg County has had to scale back its N.C. Pre-K program too, says Julie Babb, the director of preschool programs for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. She says the district's program is down about 50 kids this year, even though the state eliminated funding for about 280 students. Babb says CMS saved many of those spots by cutting other things, like support staff, field trips and transportation for families. "Those are some of the ways that children are not benefitting as much as they could," says Babb. "We lost some high-quality teachers who were afraid they weren't going to have jobs, so we're starting over in many places." She says CMS lost eight of its N.C. Pre-K teachers for that reason. Wake County had a similar problem - it lost six. Pre-K teacher Kim Roney is concerned about her job, too. She says most teachers are, she's even more worried about the kids left out. "What's sad is that there are less and less children that are being able to take advantage of this program when the need for it is really high," says Roney. State officials estimate there are nearly 70,000 at-risk children in North Carolina. But N.C. Pre-K is serving fewer than half of them. A Superior Court judge has ordered the state to do better than that and accept every one of those kids who applies. The state attorney general's office appealed that ruling, and the legislature is considering changing the definition of "at-risk." Preschool advocates worry the change would reduce the number of children who are eligible and the chances the pre-k program gets more money in the future.