Pre-K expansion has bipartisan support. But how would NC pay for it?

From left, Nazir Best and Jackson Foy attend their pre-K graduation at Aversboro Elementary School in Garner on June 9, 2016.
From left, Nazir Best and Jackson Foy attend their pre-K graduation at Aversboro Elementary School in Garner on June 9, 2016. N&O file photo

There seems to be agreement among business, education and government leaders that North Carolina should expand early childhood education, particularly for low-income children, but the question is how to pay for it.

The dilemma was at the center of the Emerging Issues Forum in Raleigh on Monday, which drew hundreds to brainstorm about how to improve educational outcomes for the state’s youngest children.

Business executives, who are pushing elected leaders on the issue, say preparing young children to succeed in school is critical to the state’s future workforce. Already there are serious gaps between available jobs and the labor pool’s skills, and future jobs are likely to require more education.

SAS CEO Jim Goodnight called for sharing data between NC Pre-K, the state’s program for 4-year-olds housed under the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, and the state’s Department of Public Instruction, so that outcomes can be measured. He said while the state has taken steps to add more slots for the program, it must do more. North Carolina is first in pre-K quality but 41st in access, he said.

“We’re never going to get out of this cycle of poverty unless we can begin to educate more people,” Goodnight said. “Education is the only way out of poverty, and I don’t know why it takes our state leaders so long to recognize that. That’s where we need to be putting our money, in early pre-K.”

There is movement on several fronts. The legislature has created a new council that will focus on childhood development issues from birth through third grade. More philanthropies are zeroing in on early education initiatives, and a Blue Ribbon Commission recently issued recommendations on options for financing smaller-scale local initiatives, whether through local taxes or industry and nonprofit programs.

Significant expansion would be costly. About 62,000 low-income children are eligible for the free NC Pre-K, and about 47 percent of them are being served. The legislature last year funded 3,500 additional slots, which will cost $27 million over two years. Goodnight said the added money will mean about 50 percent of disadvantaged children will be covered, and about 75 percent coverage is about all that’s possible given parent interest.

Another challenge is on the horizon. Some schools face a space crunch for pre-K classrooms due to legislative mandates to reduce class size in early grades. Several speakers suggest that local school superintendents have more flexibility on the class size issue.

Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican who co-chairs various House education committees, said early education should be accessible to every child in the state. “I think that’s absolutely critical to the future of the state and the future of the nation,” he said. “Whether or not it should be government funded is a separate issue. ... If somebody sees ‘free,’ everybody signs up for it.”

Private interests have contributed on the local level. One example is Impact Alamance, a philanthropy that invests $2 million a year in the area around Burlington. That amount is a tiny fraction of the school district’s budget. Philanthropies can take risks and try new things, said Tracey Grayzer, president of the organization.

“Philanthropy can take a catalyst role,” she said, “ but we’re not the end all, be all.”

The state hasn’t done enough to parlay the benefits of early education into elementary school, Horn said. “We’ve not treated early education as education,” he said, adding that the state should do more outreach to help parents and grandparents understand how to get children emotionally prepared for school.

Dr. Mandy Cohen

DHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said a whole new body of research suggests that childhood traumatic events can have a long-lasting health and academic impact for students. That needs to be taken into account. She said her department is taking a holistic approach to child health and development, including health, safety, emotional nurturing and school readiness.

Sen. Chad Barefoot, a Republican who represents Franklin and Wake counties, said there has to be a much better transition between pre-K and kindergarten. And he said it’s unfortunate that pre-K teachers are the lowest paid – a point that drew applause from the audience.

Research has shown that high-quality preschool can lead to higher performance through elementary school. North Carolina’s pre-K program was an early national exemplar, and has been praised for its quality. But it has been slow to expand, while other states have leapfrogged ahead.

The state’s business community has become more engaged on early education. Jim Hansen, regional president of PNC Bank, pledged to keep it up. “We’re thinking about our workforce 20 years from now,” he said, adding, “It’s a long-term bet, and one we’re all willing to make.”

Gov. Roy Cooper challenged corporate leaders to try to influence the political process in Raleigh. “We need business people in North Carolina to use their political capital on these education issues, and we need to make sure that we have the state revenue to do what we need to do,” he said, referencing tax cuts passed by Republicans.

Most who addressed the crowd Monday said they’re optimistic that so many high-profile leaders are involved, and that there’s bipartisan support for the overall goal for more early education efforts.

“Progress has been made,” said Venessa Harrison, president of AT&T North Carolina. “There’s a lot of progress to be made. We have to continue with our effort and not get tired.”

The forum continues Tuesday at the Raleigh Convention Center.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill