The choice of Gov. Pat McCrory's administration to run North Carolina's pre-kindergarten and child-care subsidy programs abruptly withdrew from the post Thursday following reports an organization she led for years opposed formal pre-K programs.
The state Department of Health and Human Services said Dianna Lightfoot told the agency's top leader Thursday morning she would not become the director of child development and early education. Lightfoot, who was named to the $110,000-a-year job late Tuesday, was supposed to start next Monday.
Lightfoot informed Secretary Dr. Aldona Wos "that she does not wish to be a distraction to the department and will pursue other opportunities," a department statement said.
McCrory's office referred questions to the Health and Human Services Department, which declined to comment on questions seeking information on how Lightfoot was chosen for the position. Lightfoot did not return a phone call or email seeking comment Thursday.
Republicans and former Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue have argued about pre-K funding over the past two years as part of a broader discussion about whether the state can place restraints on giving at-risk 4-year-olds access to early childhood education.
Lightfoot, from Winston-Salem, started the National Physicians Center for Family Resources more than a decade ago. It's designed to get physicians involved in health and child welfare issues, according to the group's website. She also has a master's degree and has previously worked for nonprofit groups in Alabama and South Carolina that advocate for limited government.
In a policy statement on the physicians' group website attributed in part to Lightfoot, the group wrote organized early childhood education programs may not be as effective as their advocates suggest to help children achieve their full potential. But other research "suggests they may actually be inferior to early learning opportunities at home," the group wrote.
"Universal preschool appears to be yet another one-size-fits-all approach offered by bureaucrats for what may be a non-existent 'crisis,'" the policy statement said. "Reform should start with the age groups in which children are more physically and emotionally mature, and therefore, ready to absorb and retain what they are taught."
The group's assessment contrasts with North Carolina's long history of supporting government and public-private partnerships designed to create programs that help prepare at-risk children for public schools.
Twenty years ago, Gov. Jim Hunt persuaded the General Assembly to begin the Smart Start initiative, which provides health screenings, parent training and high-quality child care to families. In 2001, Gov. Mike Easley successfully lobbied legislators to begin the precursor of the North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten program, in which children in low-income families are able to attend preschool for free.
The state Democratic Party, which criticized Lightfoot's hiring Wednesday, suggested Lightfoot wasn't properly vetted for the post. Lightfoot's hiring "would have been a danger to the most important asset we can provide to our children - early childhood education," spokesman Clay Pittman wrote in an email.
The state was serving 25,000 children in N.C. Pre-Kindergarten before Perdue decided last fall to expand enrollment by up to another 6,300 slots in response to court rulings upholding open enrollment to eligible at-risk children. Estimates are about 67,000 children statewide may be eligible for the program. McCrory said during his 2012 gubernatorial campaign that pre-kindergarten is a proven concept.
State schools Superintendent June Atkinson said Thursday it's very clear a program like pre-K "makes a huge difference in improving student achievement and reducing the need for social services once our children leave our schools." She cited third-party evaluations showing the pre-K program once run by the state education department "makes a huge difference in closing the gap of students who are at risk."