North Carolina Plans to Cut Free Pre-K Enrollment in Half, Leaving Working-Class Parents with the Bill - John T. Orcutt - Proposed Changes to Program Decrease Eligibility Skip to main content

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North Carolina Plans to Cut Free Pre-K Enrollment in Half, Leaving Working-Class Parents Holding the Bill



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The North Carolina state House recently approved some interesting changes to its free Pre-K program. They decided to amend the eligibility requirements for the program, which could end up cutting around half of the children who were previously eligible.

As it stands right now, any four year old child is eligible for the free Pre-K program if their family earns less than 75 percent of the North Carolina state median wage. That means if a family of three earns around $39,000 or less each year, their four year old would be considered “at risk” and immediately eligible for the program. Additional eligibility factors for the Pre-K program currently include:

  • An identified disability
  • A limited English speaking proficiency, as seen when the family and/or child speaks little or no English in within their own home
  • Has a developmental or special learning requirement, which is indicated by the child’s academic performance results in a developmental screening test;
  • Has chronic health conditions
  • Has at least one parent or legal guardian that is an active duty member of the armed forces of the United States, the North Carolina National Guard or other state military force, or a Reserve Unit of the armed forces, who has been ordered to active duty within the last 18 months, or will be ordered within the next 18 months.

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The newly proposed changes to Pre-K eligibility requirements would work to decrease a family’s income threshold to the federal poverty level. This would mean that a family of three earning around $19,500 would immediately be considered “at risk” and eligible for the program, instead of those families who earn $39,000 annually.

The changes would also remove automatic eligibility for children who have poor English proficiency and chronic health conditions.

NC Pre-K Information for Families

North Carolina’s free Pre-K program was designed to give a type of high-quality educational experience for eligible four year olds. It helps to prepare children for a structured school system in the future. For example, programs like Head Start or Early Head Start increased access to early childhood education among North Carolina’s children, but serious access problems remain for the children of low and middle-income families.

Right now, more than 60,000 children are eligible under the current free Pre-K program guidelines. However, with the new criteria, the number of those eligible children would be cut by about 31,000.

One of the bill’s sponsors, Representative Justin Burr, was quick to point out that said the NC Pre-K program itself isn't being cut. He said that the program would end up serving the same number of children, but the change would ensure the program slots go to the children who are at the highest risk.

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North Carolina has good reason to invest in its children. The economic benefits of programs like the free Pre-K program are substantial. According to research studies, for every one dollar spent on quality preschool programs, the economic return ends up being from $7 to $11.

While both the economic and educational benefits of Pre-K programs seem to be obvious, states across the nation are now spending the least amount of money (per child) in at least a decade. In fact, preschool funding saw its largest cuts in 2012.

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Programs like NC’s free Pre-K system benefit working families in ways that extend far beyond education. It helps families to afford schooling opportunities that, without the program, would be otherwise financially impossible. For this reason, the new eligibility changes are extremely concerning. For those families who are not at the median poverty range, but perhaps hovering just above, their children will no longer be automatically eligible for a spot in the preschool program. That means thousands of families will be forced to pay for preschool classes out of their own pockets. With an economy that is still in recovery mode and working-class families constantly struggling to pay their bills, it’s possible the finances for preschool may not be available.

If you are one of those families experiencing what feels like insurmountable debt, filing for Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy could be your ticket to a fresh financial start. Find a trusted North Carolina bankruptcy attorney and discuss which option is right for you.


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