Chicken nuggets: the downside of downsizing PreK

The Pre-K lunch story from Hoke County has been super-sized into a life of its own, and the umbilical cord connecting it with reality has been severed. Far from being an example of big government intrusion, the incident is really an example of the unintended consequences of short sighted shrinking of government, and de-regulation.

The construction and operation of childcare facilities and K-12 schools bear a deceptive superficial similarity to each other but the statutes, rules and codes governing them are quite different. The differences have chafed public school systems with Pre-K programs to the extent that many of those rules have been relaxed over the years as they apply to such programs in public schools. For example Session Law 2009-123 provided that public school facilities could be used for three and four year old preschool students without modifications normally required for child care facilities.

Fast forward to the 2011 budget ratified on June 15th. Just when Pre-K programs in public schools were finding equilibrium within the education realm, the Republican budget bill transferred responsibility for Pre-K programs from DPI to DHHS. In the process 24 supervisory positions at DPI were cut to just 8 positions at DHHS and the program budget was cut by $32 million. Oversight responsibilities were spread among existing DHHS staff and contractors more familiar with private sector compliance in stand alone programs. A description of this change is <a href=”http://www.ncleg.net/documentsites/committees/HSCECEI/11-03-2011/NC%20Pre-K%20Plan%20EO%20100%20-%202011-10-06.pdf”>described in a report</a> submitted to the House Select Committee on Early Childhood Education Improvement in October.

One-size-fits-all supervision clearly did not work in the Hoke County school where the Pre-K program was not in a stand alone facility. A random examination of the nutritional value of home-packed lunches triggered school lunch supplements for a few children. Instead of a specific remedy for the perceived nutritional deficiency, these children apparently received full replacement school lunches, which included chicken nuggets, from the school cafeteria.

There was apparently a lack of understanding of the unique context of Pre-K programs blended in a public school facility. Far from being an example of big government intrusion I see this as an example of “shrinking pains” where Pre-K programs are figuring out how to do more with less while complying with rules on the books.

This chicken nugget story grew legs of its own. You can read the details elsewhere on the web. The only way it could have been made more political is if the nuggets turned out to be Perdue brand chicken. This is part of Grover Norquist’s dream: <em>”I’m not in favor of abolishing the government. I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”</em> By cutting government spending in stages Republicans can disable government programs rendering them temporarily inefficient and primed for further cuts.

Based on my own child’s experience in private Pre-K I have no problem with reasonable dietary restrictions in Pre-K, as most of them made sense, particularly those related to hazards of choking or over-stimulation. The Diet Red Bull in the teacher’s fridge was a definite no-no. The apparent discord in implementing such restrictions in a public school environment should be an opportunity for repair, and not replacement, or elimination of public Pre-K programs.

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