North Carolina snags $70M for pre-K programs

WASHINGTON — North Carolina on Friday won another round of the federal "Race to the Top" competition, getting $70 million to boost services for children before they reach kindergarten.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said North Carolina had the top-ranked application among the 35 states, District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, which competed for $500 million in federal grant money. The competition is designed to reward states that are willing to push education reform.

"It was literally the best application we received from any state in the country," Duncan said.

Duncan said he called Gov. Bev Perdue Friday morning to congratulate her on "the remarkable achievement."

In awarding the money, the education department cited the state's Early Childhood Advisory Council, local Smart Start infrastructure, as well as plans to target rural, distressed counties with high needs.

This is the second time North Carolina has won a "Race to the Top" grant. Last year, North Carolina received $400 million geared toward improving K-12 graduation rates, and college preparedness and enrollment.

The early-childhood money will be used to start or bolster several initiatives, including Smart Start and N.C. Pre-Kindergarten. Both are aimed primarily at high-need children. They will also include improving systems for sharing knowledge and measuring student progress as well as increased training for educators.

North Carolina is also developing an "Innovation Zone" strategy that will target several high-need counties in northeastern North Carolina.

"This is a really a shot in the arm for helping us do this work," said Pam Dowdy, executive director of Wake County Smart Start, which works with an estimated 20,000 kids across the county. "With the budget challenges we face that trickle down to local communities, this offers a fresh breath of hope for families that desperately need some help."

Katherine Hutchens, the director of the Jordan Child & Family Enrichment Center in Raleigh, said students who are behind when they arrive in kindergarten struggle to catch up.

"All of this is about starting from the very beginning with the very best interventions, at least the best strategies, of getting parents involved and for getting kids engaged in a way that they will continue to build on success. So they have the skills to carry that success into public schools."

Perdue, once a kindergarten teacher, said the grant will allow the state to take "dramatic steps" toward assuring every child has a chance to succeed.

Last week, Perdue visited with children in an N.C. Pre-K classroom at the Jordan Center. She met with teachers. She colored with kids who she asked about their favorite parts of school.

After the visit, she told reporters that it was easy to see how the program helps the children prepare for the rest of their schooling.

"When they start kindergarten, they're going to be ready to learn academically and it will help the whole class," she said.

The funding comes amid a legislative battle over education funding between Democrat Perdue and the Republican-led legislature. The General Assembly made cuts in education, including cutting the pre-kindergarten budget by 20 percent.

Attorneys for five poor school districts filed a legal challenge, which led to a court hearing this summer.

Superior Court Judge Howard Manning ruled that legislators cannot impose a cap that limits pre-kindergarten for low-income 4-year-olds. The ruling is under appeal.

Last week, House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, told a town hall meeting in Matthews that lawmakers "disproportionately" cut money for early-childhood programs.