Op-Ed

Investing in what works – high-quality pre-kindergarten education

Nazir Best, left, and Jackson Foy participate in last year’s pre-kindergarten graduation at Aversboro Elementary School in Garner.
Nazir Best, left, and Jackson Foy participate in last year’s pre-kindergarten graduation at Aversboro Elementary School in Garner. News&Observer file photo

Every good business person knows that it’s smart to invest in what works. That is why we must invest more in high-quality pre-kindergarten education – a program proven to get children on track to successful and healthy adult lives.

U.S. News & World Report recently ranked all 50 states on various metrics, including education. In those rankings, North Carolina ranked No. 1 in the quality of its pre-K program, NC Pre-K. But at the same time, the state ranked 41st in preschool enrollment.

This disconnect can be remedied. I am pleased that the North Carolina Senate has taken a key step to expanding access to NC Pre-K in its proposed budget released Tuesday – a step that will allow 3,500 more children to participate over the next two years.

I urge the North Carolina House to build upon the momentum of the Senate. We need a multiyear plan to get significantly more eligible children into NC Pre-K, beginning with the budget.

A new report from the Business Roundtable, “Why Reading Matters and What to Do About It,” compiles significant research confirming that participation in a high-quality pre-K program is a key component for achieving reading proficiency by the end of third grade. The report details that achieving this important education milestone increases high school graduation rates, enrollment in post-secondary education and the skill levels necessary for the jobs of the future.

Just as importantly, third-grade reading proficiency significantly impacts adult health. Education and income are the biggest social determinants of health over a lifetime. Reading ability determinesa person’s job and income. It impacts the ability to get health care coverage, to understand doctors’ directions and to afford healthier meals.

Two neighborhoods in Greensboro strikingly demonstrate this. In one, about half of the adults do not have a high school degree. Their average life expectancy is 70. In another neighborhood, close to 100 percent have a high school degree or more. Life expectancy there is about 88 years.

North Carolina is not where we want to be. Only 38 percent of our fourth-graders are reading at grade level and the cards are stacked against those who are not reading proficiently. In fact, those students are four times more likely to drop out of school.

We can ensure more children achieve reading proficiency and have successful, healthy lives by increasing participation in NC Pre-K.

And that gets us back to the “disconnect” in North Carolina.

NC Pre-K is ranked No. 1 nationally for high-quality pre-K programs. So why are we ranked 41st for enrollment? The reason is of the more than 66,000 children eligible for NC Pre-K, over 36,000 – or 55 percent of eligible children – are not able to participate. I believe our leaders are ready to change this.

We know that increased participation in NC Pre-K will help us attain our goal of increased literacy. Rigorous studies of this program have been undertaken, documenting that children in this program develop stronger reading and math skills, are less likely to be placed in expensive special education and are much less likely to be held back a grade. Following these children through the fifth grade, researchers found that the positive impacts from NC Pre-K not only continued through fifth grade, they actually increased – significantly.

We have the No. 1 pre-K program in the country. Let’s be No. 1 in enrollment, too.

Terry Akin is CEO of Cone Health in Greensboro.

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