Mecklenburg County commissioners went on record Tuesday night in support of early childhood education for all children 5 and under, but the unanimous vote steered well clear of spending commitments.
The hour-long debate revived an initiative then-Chair Trevor Fuller proposed in February, and followed the board’s acceptance in October of a $500,000 study of expanding access to pre-kindergarten education.
Universal access to such education, Fuller and experts say, is key to reducing achievement gaps and poverty while increasing graduation rates. Only 40 percent of third graders in Mecklenburg County read proficiently, according to the National Center on Education Statistics, a statistic that is a key indicator of economic mobility.
“To me, that’s unacceptable,” Fuller said Tuesday. “The evidence is that if you’re behind in third grade you’re likely to stay behind for the remainder of your school years.”
But enrolling all 69,000 children 5 years or younger in such programs would also cost many millions of dollars.
Vice chair Jim Puckett said the resolution Trevor proposed was premature.
The results of a two-phase study paid for by the Charlotte Executive Leadership Council, formed last year by some of the city’s top executives, aren’t in yet. The leadership council will collaborate with Mecklenburg County and its Economic Opportunity Task Force on the independent research study, which the county will oversee.
“I don’t understand why we would state that we support implementation of making sure that all 69,000 have early-childhood education without knowing the best way to do that,” Puckett said.
The board settled on wording that says it will develop a “community vision” for universal early-childhood education, including funding sources and a phased approach for achieving that vision.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools serves 2,850 4-year-olds through its Bright Beginnings program, and state money pays for 1,006 children of that age in pre-kindergarten programs. Only 556 children in the county are enrolled in the Head Start program, with 659 on a waiting list.
New York City, Denver, Colo., San Antonio, Seattle and Salt Lake City are among cities that have launched early childhood education programs.
Jones, Samuelson honored
Commissioners also honored a former county manager and a past commissioner.
Rows of former elected officials and county employees attended the meeting as former county manager Harry Jones was inducted into the Order of the Hornet, Mecklenburg County’s highest award.
Commissioners also named a portion of the Little Sugar Creek Greenway near uptown for one of its biggest champions, former commissioner and state Rep. Ruth Samuelson.
Jones was county manager from 2000 to 2013, when he was fired. Vice chair Puckett praised Jones for hiring professional staff, including current manager Dena Diorio, navigating the financial straits of the recession and developing tools to gauge county performance.
Former commissioners chair Parks Helms said Jones overcame many obstacles in becoming Mecklenburg’s first black manager. “Harry Jones has succeeded in life and it’s important that we honor him for all his successes, and for helping those who need help,” Helms said.
Former staff colleagues said Jones looked after them, and commissioners said his advice helped them succeed.
“For Harry, every challenge is an opportunity to demonstrate faith, hope and humility. That's where Harry stands,” said former deputy county attorney Sandra Bisanar.
“You are the person who is responsible for me sitting at this desk,” added board Chair Ella Scarborough.
Jones, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2011, turned to face his former staff members. “The one thing I tried to impart to the staff, our only reason for existing, is to do what?” he asked.
“Serve” several replied.
“You are immensely blessed, as much as I am, to have the opportunity to sit at this dais and serve these 1 million people in the exemplary fashion that you do,” Jones said, facing commissioners. “It’s more than I ever expected.”
Commissioners proposed honoring Samuelson earlier this month. The one-mile portion of the Little Sugar Creek Greenway through Freedom Park will be named the Ruth Samuelson Trail.
Samuelson, who has ovarian cancer, led the charge for funding of the project, which turned an urban eyesore into a popular destination. She developed relationships with property owners and developers who controlled land needed for the greenway.
Commissioner Dumont Clarke called the greenway “one of the great amenities of our park and rec system.”