The GOP Move on More at Four
For the past several years, Republicans in the General Assembly have seemed generally supportive of More at Four, a program designed to help at-risk 4-year-olds get ready for school. It is one of the state's two nationally recognized early childhood programs. Smart Start is the other.
It is true that often the kind words for More at Four from Republican legislators and even a conservative think tanker or two came as they were also bashing Smart Start, but they were praising More at Four nonetheless.
That was not only when Republicans were in the minority in the House and Senate. Even this year, as Republicans put their budget together, much of the talk about slashing early childhood programs came in discussions about Smart Start, not More at Four.
One right-wing think tank even launched an absurd attack on Smart Start just as the legislative session began, reinforcing the view that Smart Start may take the brunt of the cuts to early childhood programs.
Then came the budget and the Republicans' refusal to leave the 2009 temporary sales tax in place. That meant massive cuts across the board to environmental protection programs, the court system, human services, education at all levels and both early childhood programs.
The budget also moved More at Four from the Department of Public Instruction to the Department of Health and Human Services and renamed it N.C. Pre-Kindergarten.
The cuts in education and early childhood services prompted Superior Court Judge Howard Manning to hold a hearing to see if the reductions violated the constitutional rights of children to a sound, basic education.
Manning was especially concerned with a confusing budget provision that seemed to put a cap on the percentage of at-risk children who could access More at Four and said so in a ruling several weeks ago. Manning also said that every at-risk four-year-old must have access to the program.
Republican legislative leaders at first claimed that Manning was confused about the provision and said they didn't mean to cap the percentage of at-risk kids who could enroll. They didn't mention that their budget cuts eliminated more than 4,000 slots in More at Four this year.
The Republicans then filed an appeal to clarify Manning's ruling and in response Manning restated his earlier position that the budget provision created barriers for eligible kids trying to access the program.
That prompted Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger to complain that Manning was "determined to create a massive new welfare program from the bench."
More at Four, now N.C. Pre-Kindergarten, has moved in the last couple of months in the Republicans' view from a program that helps struggling four-year-olds perform better in school to a "massive new welfare program."
It is a startling and offensive shift that ignores the facts about the program as well as Manning's perfectly logical conclusion that More at Four should be considered part of the sound basic education that at-risk students are guaranteed .
Studies show that both More at Four and Smart Start improve children's lives and their achievement in school. That makes them at the very least vital investments for the state that will help kids and save the state money in the long run.
Berger would rather cynically write it all off as a massive new welfare program. That's a pithy right-wing sound bite, but represents horribly misguided public policy that leaves thousands of children behind.
Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch. Contact him at email@example.com.
More like this story