It’s hard to say no to Anniah Grace.
She was the most precious of the three dozen public speakers Tuesday night at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board of Education meeting. Her head barely peeking above the lectern, she pleaded for Bright Beginnings, a threatened pre-kindergarten program from which she graduated.
“I have one dollar to give you,” she said to the board. “It is small, but I will not have dessert tomorrow.”
In her words and in her presence was the reason we develop initiatives like Bright Beginnings – to give as many of these beautiful children as possible a chance to overcome disadvantages they don’t control or understand.
Or, as school board Chairperson Eric Davis asked: “How much do we value our children who are the least prepared and the youngest?”
It’s the question CMS officials and school board members face as they contemplate cutting $10 million from Bright Beginnings, a program that helps more than 3,200 of those 4-year-olds. School board officials, scheduled to vote on the matter Tuesday, instead delayed their decision until Feb. 8 in the face of an outcry from the community.
But CMS officials and board members are clear: There’s no $10 million under the socks in a budgetary drawer somewhere. They’ve known for a while what some of us are still struggling to grasp: Sometimes you can’t afford to care as much as you want.
CMS is no different from than most school systems; we pay significantly more per student in low-income, low-performing schools. Most of us agree that’s a good thing, in principle, because it benefits all of us to give our community’s children a shot at success.
But budgets are a finite thing, and the dollars we add to a struggling school are often dollars that come from another place. So CMS tries to find a sweet spot, both monetary and political, because you can only Robin Hood so much before you start losing the support and the attendance of the people who see their schools getting smaller portions.
In 1998, when Bright Beginnings was born, our schools were financially freer to try programs and see what worked for low-income students. But now that money is tight, we’re having to take a sterner look at those initiatives, and with Bright Beginnings, we’re not entirely sure what we’re getting.
Studies on similar pre-K programs show what common sense tells us, that children like Anniah Grace show better kindergarten readiness and emotional growth than their low-income peers who don’t take pre-K. But other studies show that by the time most of these low-income children reach middle school, the gains they receive from public school pre-K programs seem to be wiped out.
That’s likely true for largely the same reasons the children needed these programs initially – the support from home often wasn’t enough to sustain the early growth.
Which brings us back to the same question: How much do we value the youngest and least prepared? Is it enough to keep a program we don’t know is working long-term – if it comes at the expense of more Anniah Graces in other, proven programs?
Make no mistake about that. Every substantial option that’s left to CMS will come at the expense of children. We’re now at the budgetary precipice – not only in CMS, but in county and state budgets – where the harsh cuts remaining will land hardest on the poor. It’s not good enough to be a good program, as Bright Beginnings surely is.
Maybe, before Feb. 8, someone in the community comes up with the money CMS doesn’t have. But for now, there are no sweet spots – just the sour reality that our money is running out before our hearts are ready.
Saturday, January 29, 2011
It’s hard to say no to Anniah Grace.