A Troubling Trend in Education
Gov. Beverly Perdue and Republican legislative leaders have been tossing around the blame as they fight about money for early childhood education.
That development shouldn't surprise anyone. Republican lawmakers have always been suspicious about the effectiveness of the early childhood initiatives put together by Democrats.
They grumbled when former Gov. Jim Hunt rolled out Smart Start, designed to improve day care centers while subsidizing child care for the poor. They were unimpressed when former Gov. Mike Easley created his pre-kindergarten program, dubbed More at Four.
That Republicans, once they gained control of the legislature, would make changes to the program became a foregone conclusion. Some Democrats feared they might gut them entirely.
They didn't. They did cut them. They moved More at Four from the Department of Public Instruction to the Department of Health and Humans Services, where day care centers providing Smart Start services are already regulated. They changed More at Four's name. And they imposed a co-payment on the parents of some children.
The changes weren't embraced by Wake County Judge Howard Manning, who for a decade has been overseeing the state's response to a lawsuit over public education funding. Manning found that the changes undermined the state's earlier responses to meet court requirements that all children be provided opportunities for a "sound, basic education."
Perdue responded to the ruling by suspending some of the changes, coming up with her own plan, and calling on legislators to provide an additional $30 million to comply with it.
Republican legislative leaders responded by appealing the court ruling.
Missed in the back-and-forth is a trend for which no one person or party bears responsibility, but may be more threatening to the early childhood programs than any GOP-sponsored cuts.
Over time, the program setups, moves and combinations have shifted early childhood education toward a Medicaid model rather than a public school model.
The difference is this: In Medicaid, private providers receive tax dollars to provide services; in the public schools, public employees - responsible to officials elected by voters - provide services.
The distinction may not have mattered much when Smart Start was the state's sole effort to improve the readiness of children before they entered kindergarten. The program is essentially enhanced day care.
More at Four was considered more, effectively another school grade for at-risk 4-year-olds. Private providers participating in the program - and receiving tax dollars - began calling their centers "schools" and their employees "teachers."
Moving the program to the Department of Health and Human Services put it in the same agency that administers Medicaid.
The trend is bad public policy because profit motives can get mixed up with a constitutional duty and moral obligation to educate children.
Don't believe it? When one of those private providers recently spoke before a legislative committee, she concluded her remarks talking about the jobs created by the child care industry and the "$1.7 billion impact on our state's economy."
Who knew that educating children was about economic development?
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association in Raleigh. Contact him at email@example.com.
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