Charlotte beats most cities on this first step toward educational equity, experts say

If high-quality public prekindergarten is truly the best investment to prepare all children for academic success, Charlotte is positioning itself well, according to a new national study of pre-K in America’s 40 largest cities.

Charlotte was one of five awarded gold-medal status by the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education’s National Institute for Early Educational Research and CityHealth, an organization that provides research-based policy ratings on a range of urban issues.

Charlotte’s civic and business leaders have identified early childhood education as a key to opening paths out of poverty. “A child’s earliest years have a profound and lasting impact on their school success, their career success, and their lives,” says a report from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force.

The national pre-K report released Wednesday identifies Charlotte — along with Boston; New York City; Nashville, Tenn.; and San Antonio, Texas — as among the few cities that offer reasonable access and high standards for public pre-K. High-quality pre-K programs are defined as those that require college degrees for teachers and assistants, provide good curriculum, keep class sizes small and do health screenings and referrals.

Teacher Charlotte Goodman reads a book about seahorses to Tanner Williams in a North Carolina Pre-K class at Smart Kids No. 1 in Charlotte. Diedra Laird

“NIEER researchers found that many cities are offering pre-K programs, but many of these programs lack key quality benchmarks that extensive research has shown deliver lasting benefits,” the report says. “They also found that many cities offer high-quality programs reaching too few children, which is defined as less than 30 percent of the eligible population of preschoolers.”

The national report appears to have underestimated access in Charlotte by focusing only on NC Pre-K, a statewide prekindergarten program. It says Charlotte has no local funding for the program, which is technically true.

However, this year Mecklenburg County launched Meck Pre-K, a very similar effort run by the county, with $9 million designated to pay for 600 children to attend classes in existing child-care centers. That’s in addition to about 2,800 in Bright Beginnings, a public pre-K program run by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and funded partly by the county, and about 1,000 Mecklenburg students in North Carolina Pre-K. And the county’s investment in its own pre-K program is expected to keep growing.

Angelray Chong, playing with construction blocks at Smart Kids No. 1 in Charlotte, is part of the North Carolina Pre-K program. Diedra Laird

No other cities in the Carolinas were included in the report.

North Carolina business leaders who are pushing for additional money to expand the state’s prekindergarten program recently commissioned a separate report from NIEER examining barriers to enrolling more 4-year-olds in need of free public pre-K.

“Even with both NC Pre-K and Meck Pre-K, thousands of children who very much need a high-quality pre-K experience are not getting in,” Mecklenburg business executives Mike Lamach and Tom Nelson wrote in a recent Observer op-ed piece. “High-quality preschool will create strong foundations for success in school and beyond – which is good for our students, our communities, our businesses, and our economy.”

Read the national report at

Ann Doss Helms has covered education for the Observer since 2002, long enough to watch a generation of kids go from preK to college. She is a repeat winner of the North Carolina Press Association’s education reporting award.