Change NC’s Pre-K funding to reach more children

Children are much more likely to read on grade level by the third grade, and to graduate from high school, if they enter school with the skills and tools necessary to succeed.
Children are much more likely to read on grade level by the third grade, and to graduate from high school, if they enter school with the skills and tools necessary to succeed. AP

Almost 33,000 North Carolina four-year-olds could not go to preschool today – even though they are eligible for one of the highest quality programs in the country.

Why? In large part because of the way state funding for that program – NC Pre-K – is structured. Too many North Carolina counties simply do not have the necessary funds to augment state funding, and too many struggle to find teachers, classrooms and transportation.

If we are going to open doors for these children, we must restructure how NC Pre-K is funded.

For two years, I have been working with a group of North Carolina business leaders, urging state leaders to implement policies that will increase third-grade reading proficiency – a key education milestone. Children not reading proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school, undermining their ability to develop skills needed in our competitive, global economy.

Participation in a high-quality, full-day pre-K program is a key ingredient for achieving this milestone. We have that program in NC Pre-K. In fact, a just-released longitudinal study from Duke University showed that the positive impacts of NC Pre-K last through eighth grade, which is as far as the study goes.

I appreciate that the General Assembly increased funding for NC Pre-K over the last two years. What we discovered, however, is that too many counties declined more funding or said further expansion would be difficult.

Here is what happened. In 2017, state funding for an additional 1,750 children to enroll in the program was announced by the General Assembly. For those 1,750 “slots,” 56 North Carolina counties requested funding for more than 6,000 additional children – more than three times the number of new slots available.

However, the other 44 counties declined any expansion dollars for their NC Pre-K programs – even though thousands of eligible children lived there who could not enroll.

This was not a one-time occurrence. In 2018, when funding was again increased, 34 counties declined additional funding even though they had thousands of eligible but unserved children.

As businesspeople, we wanted to understand why counties would decline new funding to help educate their children. We also wanted to understand how state funding for NC Pre-K could be used as effectively as possible to reach more of the children the program was designed to serve.

To get answers, we retained the National Institute for Early Education Research – NIEER, a nationally recognized expert on quality, state-funded pre-K programs that has helped other states effectively expand their programs.

NIEER developed a new report, diving into the challenges every North Carolina county is facing to expand NC Pre-K. What NIEER found is that most of those challenges exist because of the way state funding for the program is structured.

As detailed in the NIEER report, North Carolina’s state funding – by design – only covers 60 percent of the costs for NC Pre-K. Counties must cover the remaining 40 percent, and many just do not have the extra funds. Other barriers also exist, especially recruiting and retaining qualified teachers, classroom space, transportation costs and a state reimbursement rate to NC Pre-K providers that has not changed since 2012.

These barriers can be overcome.

Today, NC Pre-K enrolls just over 29,500 children – about 47 percent of eligible children. That leaves almost 33,000 children across the state who are eligible but unable to participate. Our goal is to enroll at least 75 percent of eligible children.

I support NIEER’s recommendations for modifying the current NC Pre-K funding structure. The recommendations address the financial realities and barriers to expansion seen across our state. Implementing these funding modifications will allow more children to participate in NC Pre-K – a program with a proven track record of increasing reading – and also math – scores.

Jim Goodnight is the co-founder and CEO of SAS.

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