Politics & Government

Thousands of families will get help paying for child care. So why are advocates raising alarms?

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

The families of about 3,700 kids will get help paying for child care under the budget the North Carolina legislature approved Friday.

But some advocates are nevertheless concerned, saying there should've been more money set aside for some of the tens of thousands who are missing out on those child-care subsidies, as well as more money for NC Pre-K. They also fear that the way North Carolina legislators are paying now will leave Pre-K funding more susceptible to future cuts.

More than 40 regional and statewide nonprofit groups that work with young children and their parents sent a letter to legislators Friday morning before the final vote on the budget in which they said voting for the budget would be "selling our children and our state short."

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Their concerns focused on $50 million they believe is missing from the new state budget for early childhood education, which they said should've gone to expanding NC Pre-K as well as the subsidies that poor families and others who qualify can get to help pay for childcare expenses.

In the federal budget passed earlier this year, Congress sent around $75 million to North Carolina for early childhood education. But the state budget approved on Friday doesn't increase early childhood funding by $75 million. It increases it by $25 million.

So where did the other $50 million from the federal government go? Legislators used it to replace $50 million in state funding that the state budget removed from NC Pre-K, freeing it up for other uses.

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Pre-K funding was already set to increase next year, through a plan in last year's budget bill that was expected to eliminate three-quarters of the wait list for the program by 2019. But Democrats and nonprofit groups said this new federal grant should've been used to bolster that plan, not just shuffle money around to other purposes.

On Friday, Wake County Democratic Rep. Cynthia Ball criticized the move, saying that by not expanding Pre-K further, thousands of kids — "many likely suffering from the ravages of adverse child experiences" — will miss out on the head-start it offers them before they start kindergarten.

The budget proposed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper would have eliminated that waiting list in a few years, she said.

"Our governor showed us how we can fully fund Pre-K by 2022, and we can do it and should do it," Ball said.

But another Wake County representative, Republican Rep. Nelson Dollar, strongly disagreed with Ball's criticisms. Dollar is the top budget writer in the House.

He initially tried to interrupt Ball's speech to ask her questions about the claims she was making, but she didn't let him, so Dollar later spoke on his own. He said the budget deserves credit for adding millions of dollars to early childhood education.

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For many families in North Carolina, child care is their biggest expense, even costlier than their rent or mortgage.

A 2017 study found that, on average, child care for one kid costs $9,254 a year in North Carolina. That's more expensive than a year of classes at UNC-Chapel Hill, where the tuition is $7,019 per year, or $9,004.76 in tuition and fees combined.

According to budget documents, the $25 million extra for the state's child-care subsidies will be enough to help out the families of about 3,700 kids. But since the waiting list for those subsidies is approaching 51,000 children, that means more than 90 percent of the children on the waiting list will have to continue waiting.

"The way I see this is a tremendous missed opportunity for children and families in North Carolina," said Rob Thompson, the deputy director of the nonprofit group NC Child. "We have 50,000 children on a waiting list for child-care subsidies right now. This money was intended for them, and now those families aren't going to be able to use it."

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The average child-care subsidy is for $5,416.56 a year, according to data from Thompson's group. The program serves more than 63,000 children. With the wait list at nearly 51,000, that means just a little more than half of the families who seek help are able to get it.

Not only does the new budget plan shortchange thousands of families waiting for help paying for child care, Thompson said, it also puts the state's entire Pre-K system on precarious footing since it replaces state funding with federal funding.

"That destabilizes the program in the long term because it's now more dependent on federal funding, which we have no control over," he said.

Dollar defended the legislature's handling of Pre-K funding and stability. He said Friday that state lawmakers passed a new law recently to protect Pre-K funding, "actually ensuring the funding not only for this year, but for future budgets.”

In addition to the major programs of Pre-K and child-care subsidies, the budget also increased funding for some other smaller programs aimed at early childhood education.

A program that sends children's books to pediatricians, to give out to the parents whose kids they see, got a $250,000 boost. And nonprofit groups in Alamance, Union and Wilkes counties got a combined $125,000 for their efforts helping young children in those counties.

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Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran