08/04/11 — Pre-K ruling worry for Wayne County agency

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Pre-K ruling worry for Wayne County agency

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on August 4, 2011 1:46 PM

Officials at Partnership for Children of Wayne County say they are caught off guard by a state judge's ruling ordering pre-kindergarten programs to accept every child, with no stipulation of funding being attached.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which now oversees what was formerly known as "More at Four," is responding to a ruling last month from Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr. that local agencies administering the pre-kindergarten program accept all candidates. At the same time, the agency told providers not to begin collecting co-payments, which could potentially offset some of the lost taxpayer funding.

"It's quite different from what we're having to face because we're facing additional cuts in our slots," said Charles Ivey, executive director of The Partnership for Children of Wayne County, late Wednesday. "We don't know what impact the judge's ruling is going to have."

In a letter last week, the department's Division of Child Development and Early Education said it "is currently evaluating the potential demand of services and the associated cost for serving all at-risk eligible 4-year-olds with the same high-quality program standards that have existed."

A letter to providers said the challenge in coming weeks will be to find enough classroom slots taught by licensed teachers. Local agencies were advised to use the money already budget to them as state officials attempt to take stock of any additional demand and determine how to fill that need.

As to how many children will be involved, and what it will cost to educate them, that remains unknown.

Ivey said his agency had already faced cuts to slots in the program before the latest announcement. He said he is concerned about what the judge's ruling will mean for Wayne County.

"We really do not know, until we hear and get some more information on not only funding but on slots that are going to be available," he said. "They're asking us how many we get, then they tell us how much they're going to fund. It's very uncertain at this point."

The journey of the state's pre-kindergarten program has been fraught with twists. In 1997, a landmark state Supreme Court decision was made to improve student performance and better-prepare 4-year-olds at risk of falling behind their peers.

Since 2002, the state has cited More at Four as satisfying the court's demands. Those in the program are considered at risk, most families earn below the statewide average, have a disability or chronic health problem, do not speak English or have parents on active military duty.

During the last school year, an estimated 32,000 children were served by the program, but Manning estimated there could be up to 67,000 children eligible for services.

When the latest state budget was created, the More at Four program was renamed NC Pre-Kindergarten and shifted from the state Department of Public Instruction to DHHS.

Private child care centers are also in the dark about the changes and how their services will be funded.

"It's really a shame," Ivey said. "We do not know. A lot of the parents are calling us wanting to know about the assignments, spaces available and we don't know what to tell them.

"It's frustrating for them as well as us because the parents don't know what to plan for."

-The Associated Press contributed to this story.