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NC bill tightening pre-K eligibility clears panel

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- A bill toughening income requirements for pre-K applicants is headed to the North Carolina House floor for debate after passing a committee Tuesday.

The Health and Human Services Committee approved the bill that lowers the amount families must earn than is currently required to enter North Carolina's Pre-Kindergarten program serving at-risk 4-year-olds. The vote was 14-4.

Eligibility is now capped at incomes of 75 percent of the state median, which is about twice the federal poverty rate. The measure would reduce it to the poverty rate, which is about $19,500 for a family of three.

Currently, children who don't qualify by income can enter the program if their parents are active members of the military or died in service, have special education plans, developmental disabilities, chronic illnesses or limited English proficiency. The bill limits "at-risk" classification to those who meet the new income requirement, those with identified disabilities in special education plans and the children of active military service members, injured service members or those killed in action.

The change roughly halves the 60,000 children who meet income qualifications, said Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly and the bill's lead sponsor. But he said the bill won't actually reduce the total number of applicants served.

"We're simply reducing that down to a level we believe we can appropriately fund," he said. "There are no slots that will be reduced by changing this definition."

Burr added that the 31,000 who would meet the new income requirements still exceed current program capacity, and that doesn't include those who qualify under a different measure.

"There still will be a need for additional funding for all those kids that are considered 'at-risk' under this new definition," he said.

The state spent $128 million serving 25,000 children before former Gov. Beverly Perdue brought the number to about 30,000 with an executive order last year directing another $20 million to the program. A September 2012 survey before the executive order found 11,678 children were waiting for Pre-K services.

Gov. Pat McCrory's budget would cap eligibility at 130 percent of poverty while expanding the program with another $26.2 million to support 5,000 new applicants.

The legislature cut pre-K funding by 20 percent two years ago, but reforms capping certain categories of at-risk children and requiring most parents to make co-payments were successfully challenged in court. A state appeals court ruled last year that the state can't turn away eligible children but did not order it to provide the program for all prospective applicants.

Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange, argued lawmakers should instead look to expand pre-K offerings because the program invests in the state's future workforce.

"I understand the budget constraints, but we are redoing our tax system now. There are a lot of loopholes that are out of date," she said. "There are many ways we could provide funding and expand this program."

Joining Insko's side during public comment was Jennifer Ferrell, who said she's a mother from Apex.

"I'm urging that you leave the eligibility requirements alone," Ferrell said. "You'll leave many children who need help behind."

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