WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Gov. Bev Perdue recently transferred $9.3 million to the North Carolina pre-K program to make room for 2,000 more children.
If you do that math, that's a staggering amount of money per child -- almost $5,000 each, rivaling the $5,600 annual tuition at UNCW.
NC pre-K helps at-risk 4-year-olds prepare for kindergarten, teaching them social skills as well as letters and numbers, colors and shapes. Most of their parents' incomes fall below the state poverty level.
"It's not a baby sitting service at all," said Dr. Diane Emerson, director of the state's pre-K program in New Hanover County. "We really focus on high academics. Getting students ready for kindergarten."
While there is clearly value in having a pre-K education, it's not at all clear how much that education should cost. The state is paying New Hanover County $851 per child, per month for the newly enrolled NC pre-K students.
That's twice as much as Senator Thom Goolsby, who sits on the Senate Education Committee, spends to send his own children to a private, Montessori preschool in Wilmington.
"Where does the money go? How come it's twice what I am paying in the private sector," he asked when told how much the state was spending on pre-K.
First Presbyterian Preschool is considered to be a leader among private preschools in Wilmington. The 4-year-old program there is just $225 a month.
"We are adequately preparing children at a far less cost here," preschool director Anna Martin said. "I feel like our [students] are probably at the top level of preparedness."
The standards for state pre-K programs are different than for private preschools, but not necessarily better.
For example, students in many private preschools go to school for three hours a day, while students in the state program spend a minimum of six and a half hours a day, five days a week in school.
Additionally, the average salary for a licensed teacher for the state preschools is $45,000. Salaries in private preschools are not regulated.
At an age where many children still need a nap each day, it's debatable whether the extra time in school, and the extra expense for taxpayers, are necessary to get at-risk kids ready for kindergarten.
When asked why the reimbursement rate for the new NC pre-K students was so high, Emerson said, "I can't answer that question. That is totally upon the governor. She awarded the monies throughout the state, and that was the figure that was given to us. We have nothing to do about the cost. We just accept the monies that we are awarded."
While it isn't clear why the state is paying so much for its newest pre-K students, it's certainly considerably more than the typical pre-K reimbursement rate.
The state is paying $450 per month for the 555 kids who were already enrolled in pre-K before Governor Perdue opened up more spots.
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