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NC vouchers displaced this Charlotte charity. Its new cause: Early childhood care.

Children listen in a public pre-K class at Smart Kids No. 1  in Charlotte.
Children listen in a public pre-K class at Smart Kids No. 1 in Charlotte. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

When the Children’s Scholarship Fund opened in Charlotte in 1999 it was a pioneer in the field of school choice, using private donations to help parents of modest means send their kids to private schools.

These days North Carolina is pumping tens of millions of dollars into providing parents more options. Tuition-free charter schools have expanded, especially in the Charlotte area, and the Opportunity Scholarship program has a steadily-growing supply of taxpayer money to provide private-school vouchers.

“We used to be the only kid on the block,” said Ann Barnes Robertson, executive director of the scholarship fund. With bigger kids crowding in, her board decided it was time to dissolve or find a new mission.

They chose the second route. Now they’re raising money to boost the subsidies that help working parents afford high-quality care for children under 5.

The new Family Impact Fund, a subsidiary of Foundation for the Carolinas, will still be the little kid on the block. The federal government and Mecklenburg County already provide child-care subsidies that pay for more than 4,000 young children to attend four- and five-star centers.

But the board and Robertson, all of whom are transitioning from the Children’s Scholarship Fund to the Family Impact Fund, believe they’ve found a vital niche: Making sure parents don’t lose their subsidy when they hit the income cap, around $49,200 for a family of four.

They see it as playing their part in a communitywide push to give families a path out of poverty. Leading on Opportunity, a nonprofit formed to boost economic mobility in Charlotte, has identified early childhood education as one of the keys to a brighter future.

“We feel like we are interrupting the cycle of poverty two generations at a time,” Robertson said. “You can’t have upward mobility if the parent is afraid to take a raise.”

According to the Family Impact Fund’s analysis, child care costs about $10,000 per child per year, or $1,666 each month for a family with two young children. If that family has four people total, the government subsidy would vanish when income tops $49,200 a year.

The private fund plans offer a phased-out subsidy that would let the parent keep earning more without taking such a huge hit. At $49,200, the family would cover only $410 of the monthly child-care bill, or 10 percent of their income. Once they hit about $59,500 they’d start paying 15 percent. The private subsidy would be cut off at about $66,500 for a family of four.

During its almost 20 years in Charlotte, the Children’s Scholarship Fund, which is a national organization, has invested more than $10 million and sent almost 8,000 to K-8 private schools. It will continue to support the 184 children who currently have scholarships until they complete those grades.

Meanwhile, the Family Impact Fund has about $125,000 in hand, with another $100,000 expected from a spring 2019 fundraising event. That means it will start small — the group hopes to start paying its first subsidies in December — while seeking grants to expand.

The effort becomes part of a wider push to pull together public bodies and donors large and small to make sure all children arrive at school with the kind of experience that prepares them to learn. For instance, Mecklenburg County just opened its own public prekindergarten program, joining other programs sponsored by the federal and state governments and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Anyone interested in supporting the Family Impact Fund can get more information at familyimpactfund.org or 704-973-4583.

Subsidies from the fund will be awarded by Child Care Resources Inc., a nonprofit that also screens for government subsidies: childcareresourcesinc.org or 704-376-6697.

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Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms
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