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House bill limits pre-kindergarten eligibility

A new House bill would limit eligibility for the state's pre-kindergarten program so for a child to get in next year, families couldn't make more than half what the do now.

The bill would reduce income eligibility from about 200 percent of the federal poverty level to 100 percent. If the income limit was in place this year, a family of three could not make more than than $19,530 a year to have a four-year-old qualify for N.C. Pre-K. Some of the other ways to qualify, such as having developmental needs or being a child in a military family, remain in the bill, although a child with limited English proficiency would no longer meet the guidelines.

The program started to help "at-risk" four-year-olds get ready for kindergarten. But in the last two years, the definition of "at risk" triggered a heated debate between the former Democratic governor and the new Republican-led legislature. Poor school districts ended up suing, and Wake Superior Court Judge Howard Manning said the legislature could not erect barriers to enrollment for at-risk children.

About 29,600 children are enrolled in N.C. Pre-K. A state survey of contractors from September 2012 showed that 11,678 children were waiting to get into a pre-K class.

Gov. Pat McCrory's budget proposal would add $52 million over two years to the $151.7 million budget, adding 5,000 more slots.

Rep. Justin Burr, one of the House bill's sponsors, made a similar income proposal to limit income eligibility a few years ago, but dropped it.

Burr said the bill would work hand-in-hand with McCrory's proposal by making sure the state is enrolling all the children who most need pre-kindergarten.

Rob Thompson, executive director of the Covenant with North Carolina's Children, said the state's goal should be to enroll as many children as possible in preschool.
"Limiting to families under the federal poverty line is counter to that statewide goal," he said.


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