Politics & Government

Business leaders say NC must do more to provide Pre-K to those kids who most need it

Prominent North Carolina business leaders are calling on state leaders to sharply increase pre-kindergarten enrollment by more than 15,000 children so that 75 percent of the eligible children are served.

NC Pre-K, the state’s program for at-risk 4-year-olds, serves 29,509 children. But business leaders say another 32,728 children who meet the program’s requirements aren’t being served. At a news conference Thursday at Millbrook Elementary School in Raleigh, business leaders said the state needs to change the way NC Pre-K is funded to ensure more children are served.

“Thousands of children across North Carolina are eligible for the program, but they are unable to enroll because in large part by how North Carolina Pre-K is funded,” said SAS CEO Jim Goodnight.

Goodnight called on state lawmakers this year to:

Maintain and consider increasing funding for NC Pre-K;

Move away from using waiting lists to determine how to expand NC Pre-K and instead focus on the goal of serving 75 percent of eligible children;

Undertake an in-depth review of recommendations from the National Institute for Early Education Research on how to change funding for the program.

State Rep. Craig Horn, a longtime education leader in the House who attended Thursday’s news conference, said changes to Pre-K funding would fit in with how legislators are looking at reconfiguring K-12 funding.

“We can’t wait any longer,” Horn, a Republican from Union County, said in an interview. “I don’t think anybody would dispute that the family unit of today is different from the family unit of 25 years ago, of 50 years ago.

“But we’re doing things based on data from 25 years ago, 50 years ago, so we’ve got to change our approach.”

RAL_20190117_prekindegarten(2) (3)
Jim Goodnight, CEO of SAS, reads to kindergarten children after a press conference with other prominent CEOs in the state to discuss the importance of increasing participation in NC Pre-K to 75 percent of eligible children, at Millbrook Elementary School on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019, in Raleigh, NC. Casey Toth ctoth@newsobserver.com

Business leaders argued that expanding pre-kindergarten access is key to ensuring that the state develops the work force needed for North Carolina’s future.

Dale Jenkins, CEO of Medical Mutual Insurance Company of North Carolina, pointed to research showing that ninth-grade students who are proficient in reading by third grade are three times more likely to graduate from college.

But Jenkins also noted discouraging data showing how the state’s Read to Achieve program, an effort to get students reading at grade level by third grade, isn’t getting the hoped-for results. In addition, he pointed to the state’s showing on a national reading test called NAEP.

“Sixty-one percent of North Carolina fourth-graders are not proficient in reading,” Jenkins said. “When you put your head down on a pillow tonight I want you to remember that. That ought to be an embarrassment for all of us.”

Critics of expanding Pre-K have questioned its long-term academic benefits. But business leaders pointed Thursday to a new Duke University study that found that the positive impacts from participating in NC Pre-K last at least through eighth grade.

Charles Bowman, North Carolina Market President for Bank of America, said the Duke study “absolutely confirms that the high quality of our NC Pre-K program is getting us lasting results for North Carolina students who are able to participate.

The business leaders thanked state lawmakers for their efforts in the past two years to increase funding for NC Pre-K. But they said the way the program is funded has hindered expansion, with some counties turning down the state funding, which covers 60 percent of the cost for each child.

Participation now varies widely across the state. About 1 in 4 counties are serving 75 percent or more of their eligible children, while 40 percent of counties are serving less than half of their eligible children.

Steve Barnett, senior co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research. offered several recommendations for helping expand pre-K participation, including:

Develop targets for expansion, particularly in underserved areas;

Offer financial incentives for four-and five-star childcare centers to participate;

Increase the state’s base reimbursement rate;

Help private childcare centers increase pay to pre-K teachers, who typically make less money than pre-K teachers at public schools;

Explore providing NC Pre-K funding through the funding formula now provided to K-12 public schools.

“Growing 75 percent of eligible children is an attainable goal,” Goodnight said. “We just need the help and commitment from our state’s elected leaders to make it a reality.”

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.