05/11/2012 04:52 pm ET

Gov. Bev Perdue's Budget Could Save Nation's Top State-Funded Early Childhood Program, Children's Advocates Say

Children's advocates are applauding the latest state budget in North Carolina, hailing it as the latest victory in a long and drawn-out battle over the future of pre-kindergarten programs in a state that was once to early childhood education what Michigan was to cars and Mississippi was to the blues.

North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue released her executive budget for 2013 on Thursday.

Since the 1960s, the Research Triangle including Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State University, led the way in early childhood research, contributing several studies to the growing body of research demonstrating the crucial role preschool plays in helping children move out of poverty and become productive members of society. Starting in the 1990s, North Carolina's then-Gov. Jim Hunt, built on this legacy by establishing Smart Start, a program providing a range of services to low-income families with small children. At the beginning of the next decade, his successor Gov. Michael Easley went further, creating an innovative pre-k program for low-income students called More at Four.

Steve Barnett, an authority on early education, said both programs had exceptionally high standards and noted that the state steadily increased investments in them during the last decade.

But in summer 2011, the state's Republican-led legislature slashed funding for More at Four by $16 million, or 20 percent. A reallocation of lottery dollars also led to additional cuts of $16 million to More at Four, and $37.6 million to Smart Start. A battle unfolded. First, a judge ruled that the cuts violated the state constitution, which entitles all children to a free and public education. Then the legislature ignored the order, prompting current Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, to restore some of the funding.

Her new budget calls for the state to increase its support for both programs by more than $40 million -- $25 million for the pre-K program and $18 million for Smart Start. She proposed raising most of this money through a sales-tax hike of three-quarters of a cent.

Alexandra Sirota, the director of the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center, praised the plan, saying that increasing the state's revenue is "critical for us to be able to do any of the things we need to be doing right now to rebuild our economy."

Children's advocates were similarly pleased. "There are only 2,000 days between the time a baby is born and the time he shows up for kindergarten and their experiences in this time will determine how a baby's brain is wired," said Jane Meyer, executive director of the Smart Start program of Mecklenburg County. "I think the money that she's put in the budget will rebuilt the system."

But as other advocates point out, there's little reason to believe that the legislature will accept the governor's recommendations.

House Speaker Thom Tillis said in a statement that he considered the governor's proposal to raise the sales tax "more of the same failed approach that led to the fiscal mess the Republican legislative majority inherited."

And so the fight over these programs is expected to continue through the summer, with children's advocates and their opponents both looking ahead to the state elections in November.