How NC can give more kids a head start

Pre-K efforts in North Carolina have been successful but hampered by county funding issues.
Pre-K efforts in North Carolina have been successful but hampered by county funding issues. News&Observer file photo

When Charlotte was ranked last among the country’s 50 largest metropolitan areas for upward economic mobility in 2014, Mecklenburg County set out to reverse that number.

One concrete step was to fund Meck Pre-K, a program for our county’s 4-year-olds. Quality preschool has proven important to economic mobility because it ensures children develop critical foundations for success in school and beyond.

The business community strongly supported this move.

For the last two years, we have worked with a group of North Carolina business leaders in support of increased state funding for NC Pre-K, a high-quality program targeting low-income 4-year-olds across the state. Our goal has been to enroll at least 75 percent of eligible children in North Carolina – we are currently at 47 percent.

Meaningful funding increases for NC Pre-K began in 2017, but something unexpected happened. More than 40 counties in North Carolina actually declined new funding – even though they had thousands of eligible children who could not participate. This happened again in 2018 when 34 counties declined new funding.

As business leaders, we wanted to understand why.

We retained a nationally recognized expert on state-funded preschool programs, the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), to analyze why North Carolina counties might decline funding to expand NC Pre-K and what barriers to expansion all of our counties are facing.

NIEER’s report, to be released Thursday, found that virtually all of the barriers to expansion are directly linked to how the state funds NC Pre-K. By design, state funding only covers 60 percent of the costs, with counties having to cover the remaining 40 percent. Many counties simply do not have the extra funds. Across all counties, NIEER found problems in recruiting and retaining qualified teachers, creating more classroom space, and providing transportation to get children to school.

NIEER has developed concrete recommendations to overcome these barriers. Some may be budget-neutral, others target specific barriers, and others are designed to meet rising program costs. For example, NIEER recommends targeting funding to areas where services are least available, offering grants for start-up costs, increasing stagnant reimbursement rates to providers, and exploring mechanisms to better correlate existing state and federal funding streams.

Here in Mecklenburg County, almost 6,000 children are eligible for NC Pre-K. Unfortunately, only about 1,500 are enrolled in the program. Meck Pre-K got started by opening enrollment for 600 children this school year.

But do the math, and the problem is obvious. 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.

We firmly believe in combining county and state efforts to support high-quality pre-K. We thus support NIEER’s new recommendations to expand access to NC Pre-K and urge the General Assembly and Gov. Cooper to strategically restructure and use state funding to expand this high-quality program with proven, lasting results.

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.

Lamach is chairman and CEO of Ingersoll Rand in Davidson. Nelson is chairman, president and CEO of Charlotte-based National Gypsum.