Schools include Pre-K

Published 1:21 am Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Beaufort County will continue to offer More at Four classes

Despite recent budget cuts to by state lawmakers, Beaufort County’s public schools will continue to offer prekindergarten classes to children during the coming school year.

The number of children who may attend the classes and the fee that will be charged to many of those students depends, to a great extent, on the response by the General Assembly to a ruling by a Wake County Superior Court judge in a lawsuit over funding for the popular program, formerly known as More at Four.

Initiated by Gov. Mike Easley, More at Four, now known as NCPK, is a voluntary prekindergarten program designed to prepare at-risk 4-year-olds in North Carolina for success in school.

Beaufort County Schools plans to offer four classes for a total of 72 students through the program, according to a recent announcement by BCS Superintendent Don Phipps.

That number is a decrease from previous years when five classes were offered for a total of 90 students, he said.

“In the worst-case scenario, we will offer four classes,” he said.

The decrease is because of a drop in state funding for the program that was included in the $19.7 billion state spending plan approved by state legislators earlier this year.

State lawmakers, facing a record $2.5 billion budget shortfall, cut funding for More at Four and Smart Start this year by about 20 percent.

Those same lawmakers also moved administration of the program from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

With that move, the program’s name was changed to the N.C. Prekindergarten Program.

As a result of the budget cuts and other changes, parents of most children in NCPK could be charged for their children to attend the classes, depending on the state Legislature’s response to a ruling earlier this month by Judge Howard E. Manning Jr.

Manning issued an order July 18 stipulating that the state cannot implement any barrier or regulation that prevents eligible at-risk children from enrolling in the prekindergarten program.

His ruling said the state budget does not meet the constitutional requirement to provide a sound, basic education to the state’s low-income preschoolers. It appears likely they’ll have to revisit to the budget to find more money for pre-kindergarten programs for at-risk children.

While Manning’s order could force the Republican-controlled Legislature to rewrite part of the state budget, legislative leaders have said that implementing the order would require pulling money from other educational programs.

Barring any additional action by the Legislature, fees will be levied for 80 percent of the children enrolled in NCPK, according to Greg Singleton, executive director for federal programs and student support.

The fees would be set on a sliding scale based on family income, but the average payment has been estimated to be about $60 per child per month, he said.

In Beaufort County, three child-care centers and the public schools have worked together in past years to provide a developmentally appropriate curriculum and structured environment for about 180 students through More at Four, according to Singleton.

NCPK is one of three prekindergarten programs offered by the public schools with funds from the state and federal governments, he said.