Bill would tighten eligibility rules for NC Pre-K

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RALEIGH, N.C. — A bill that passed the State House Thursday would tighten eligibility rules for NC Pre-K, the state’s free program for at-risk 4-year-olds.

Under the current program, children of families making up to 75 percent of the state’s median income, or about 200 percent of the federal poverty level, are considered "at risk" and therefore eligible for the program. For a family of three, that’s about $39,000.

The proposed bill would redefine of "at-risk" children to those in families making no more than 100 percent of the poverty level, or about $19,500 for a family of three.

Some counties estimate the changes would decrease the number of eligible children by as much as one-third to one-half. About 60,000 children in North Carolina are currently eligible.

Eligibility standards also include children with active military parents or parents who’ve died in the military, as well as children with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) that address developmental disabilities, chronically ill children and children with limited English proficiency.

Cindy Watkins, Executive Director of the Guilford County Partnership for Children, says she appreciates the state's effort to help the most vulnerable children.

However, she has concerns with this particular method.

"Guilford County has one of the largest NC Pre-K programs in the state. I worry that changing the definition of 'at risk' doesn't change a child's need for growth and development. We've built this great infrastructure for Pre-K to continue growing. I'd hate to now lose capacity or children because the eligibility changes."

"Not to capitalize on these children at a critical time is concerning," Watkins added.

Bill Pless, Davidson County's Executive Director of Smart Start of Davidson County, agreed. "What we're in the business of doing is to serve the most children we can. So when if those requirements change? It would actually probably bring down the number of children we serve."

Parent Brittany Morris said she'd have to give up her part-time job if her daughter was not in Pre-K. And paying for Pre-K or child care each month could cost hundreds of dollars; it's not an option for Morris.

"I couldn't afford it. I couldn't," she explained. "And this program is amazing for kids. I've really seen a huge improvement in my daughter and all her friends."

Watkins also pointed out, retaining children in later grades could be more expensive down the line than investing in Pre-K now.

The proposal passed the State House Thursday and now goes to the State Senate for a vote.

"I just hope when they make all these proposals they always make sure to think about the children and future of these children," said NC Pre-K teacher Olive Slemp.