When a group of Charlotte CEOs committed $500,000 last month to study expanding pre-kindergarten, we confess we had two immediate thoughts:
1) That is one expensive study. 2) More studying?
Now, based on recent comments by Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio, we’re hopeful that this could go way beyond studying and be the start of something big.
At a business lunch this month, Diorio said Mecklenburg is serious about providing universal pre-K and that she intends for the county government to be a central player in making it happen. She noted that other cities and states have implemented universal pre-K.
“The county believes that this is something that’s in its wheelhouse,” she said. “We believe if the county doesn’t step up to take on this challenge, that it won’t happen. If not us, nobody, and if everybody else can do it, why can’t we? And we really believe there is a tremendous amount of value in doing that.”
The CEO-funded study is just getting under way. The county hired a consultant called the Early Learning Policy Group to lead an 18-month effort in conjunction with the Committee For Economic Development in Washington. The first phase will focus on community engagement, building an understanding and will among county residents to do this. The second will dive into the cost and who’s going to pay for it, lay out a timeline and develop a strategy for scaling it.
Diorio says she expects the county will include the initiative in its annual budget starting next summer.
It won’t be cheap. About 2,500 kids sit on a waiting list for child-care subsidies right now, Diorio told the editorial board. Getting them off the waiting list and into pre-K would be the first priority. The next goal would be to offer it to all 4-year-olds. In the longer term, the effort could provide some form of care or education to all children between birth and age 5.
There are enough classroom slots for all 2,500 kids on the waiting list, but it would cost about $23 million a year to serve them all, Diorio said.
That’s a lot of money, to be sure, but a substantial investment is likely to pay off. Studies increasingly show the value of pre-kindergarten and its ability to narrow the gap between low-income children and their peers.
One new study by Duke University researchers found that children enrolled in North Carolina’s early childhood programs showed academic gains that lasted through fifth grade. More than 1 million N.C. children formed the study’s basis. Kids who had been in Smart Start and More at Four (now known as NC Pre-K) had higher math and reading scores and were held back less frequently. The children were also less likely to be placed in special education down the road.
Other cities, including New York, Miami and San Antonio, offer universal pre-K. It’s heartening that Mecklenburg County and area leaders are pushing for it here.
As this city thinks about social mobility, achievement gaps and the economic pressures that contributed to the recent unrest, it might find that few things pay off like giving kids from all walks of life a strong academic start.