MEDIA RELEASE: Legislative changes would limit at-risk children's access to NC Pre-K, harm economy in the long-run

Lowering income eligibility threshold of NC Pre-K would leave out thousands of low-income children and move would be out of step with other states, report finds

RALEIGH (March 1, 2012) – This morning, the NC House Select Committee on Early Childhood Education Improvement is expected to vote on a proposal that could change the administration of and accessibility to North Carolina's Pre-K program, including by lowering the "at-risk" income eligibility for children and their families seeking enrollment in NC Pre-K.

Lowering the income eligibility threshold of NC Pre-K would directly and negatively impact North Carolina's children and economy down the road, according to a report released this morning by the Budget & Tax Center, a project of the NC Justice Center. Legislators are expected to consider changes that would lower the "at-risk" eligibility standard to 100% of the federal poverty line. Under such rules, at least 9,700 children currently enrolled in NC Pre-K would no longer meet the financial requirements for the program, the report finds.

"Free prekindergarten is essential if we want to give four year olds a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that yields incredible and lasting impacts on children’s learning outcomes, earning power down the road, and economic impacts on our communities," said Louisa Warren, policy advocate with the BTC and author of the report. "For many of North Carolina’s families, early education programs are prohibitively expensive, impacting children’s access to early learning opportunities in the short-term and their earning power in the long-term."

The report examines the question of who is poor in North Carolina and what levels of income make it hard to make ends meet using a measure called the Living Income Standard (LIS), a market-based and localized approach to measuring economic hardship. The Living Income Standard finds that it takes an annual income equivalent to 238% of the federal poverty level to afford basic expenses for a family of one parent and one child – more than double than that of the draft recommendations for the new NC Pre-K income eligibility threshold – with child care representing 25% of that family’s budget. Families making below the LIS cannot pay for necessities like food, housing, health care, transportation or child care without relying on debt income or assistance. For a family of three at the new potential NC Pre-K income eligibility threshold – 100% of the federal poverty level (earning $18,530 annually) – child care can eat up to 40% of their income.

“The Living Income Standard tells us that families earning below that standard in North Carolina – more than double the federal poverty level – walk a tenuous tightrope in trying to keep food on the table, roofs over their head and bills paid,” Warren added. “Items like quality early education can become an unaffordable luxury.”

The report also finds that North Carolina is becoming an outlier in trying to narrow the reach of its prekindergarten program. In fact, many states are moving to universal or near-universal programs. North Carolina’s Southern neighbors Florida and West Virginia have state-funded universal preschool education programs, and Kentucky, Tennessee, and Louisiana all serve children in their preschool education programs who reside in families with incomes up to 200% of the federal poverty level.

Because NC Pre-K’s current “at-risk” eligibility threshold is inclusive of a broader range of children in households experiencing economic hardship with incomes above the flawed federal poverty level, it has the greatest potential to improve the earnings for more North Carolinians and strengthen the economy, the report noted.

"Prekindergarten programs like NC Pre-K have been proven to increase children’s earnings down the road and produce cost savings in reduced crime, special education services, a higher-skilled workforce and other benefits,” Warren concluded. “Investing in early education is one of the most important things we can do to move our state forward and given the prohibitive cost of early learning opportunities, we should make it available to all low-income children facing hardship."

Warren will be at the NC House Select Committee this morning and available for comment on this report as well as any action taken at the committee.

The report is available here: http://www.ncjustice.org/?q=node/1173

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Louisa Warren, Senior Policy Advocate, (919) 801-0465, Louisa@ncjustice.org; Jeff Shaw, Director of Communications, 503-551-3615, jeff@ncjustice.org.