If there’s one issue that every part of the political spectrum can get behind, it’s early childhood education.

Reaching children from birth to age 5 is closely correlated with alleviating poverty and closing achievement gaps. Today, children reach kindergarten ill-prepared for learning, and they never get caught up.

Investing in these programs also tends to be cost-efficient, with each dollar spent staving off many more dollars that would be spent later on remedial education, welfare and prisons.

Both Republicans and Democrats agree that North Carolina should spend more money on early childhood education. The question right now seems to be about timing — and just how much to spend.

Today, North Carolina’s early childhood education spending mostly goes into two programs: N.C. Pre-K and Smart Start.

In the past year, the General Assembly has modestly (but significantly) increased the amount of money it puts behind the public preschool program. They’ve also launched a task force to study how best to govern and track early learning.

But an upcoming bill from Sen. Jeff Jackson takes a more aggressive approach. An exclusive look at the legislation shows that it would pour $238 million more into the state’s two successful programs by the end of five years.

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How does N.C. Pre-K work?

The state’s public preschool program offers roughly 27,000 4-year-olds free schooling at public schools or in private daycare settings.

Most of the spots go to families making less than 75% of the state median income, but other at-risk categories are eligible, too: kids with developmental disabilities, language barriers or parents on active-duty military service.

By all accounts, it’s an excellent program. U.S. News ranked it as the top state-based preschool program in the nation.

It’s also been extensively studied over the past decade and a half and shown to have a meaningful impact on test scores in 3rd and 5th Grade in both reading and math.

Still, it currently does not have the money to serve everyone who is eligible. There are approximately 62,300 children eligible for NC Pre-K, and funding for less than half of them.

About 5,000 children are currently on a waitlist for slots.

[Want to know more about N.C. Pre-K? Read this Longleaf story: North Carolina set to eliminate public pre-K waitlist by 2020]

This chart provides the funding breakdown, but does not include the additional $13 million allocated to it in March by the General Assembly. That would be in the green bar.

Smart Start

Smart Start is a block of funding distributed statewide through the nonprofit North Carolina Partnership for Children. Most counties have their own subgroup that handles their allotment.

The money generally goes toward a couple different things. The big bucket is child care subsidies that help low-income children get high-quality care. The money also goes toward health programs, parent education and literacy initiatives.

Some of the money goes to the N.C. Pre-K program, too.

This is the statewide distribution data.

Each county does things a little different. Here’s Mecklenburg County’s distribution:

Here’s Wilkes County:

Funding took a big cut — along with just about everything in the budget — after the economic recession. It’s mostly stayed steady for the last six years.

What the General Assembly has done in the past year:

North Carolina Republicans have already taken one big step forward on early childhood education this year. House Bill 90 added $13 million per year to the N.C. Pre-K program, enough to wipe out the 5,000-child waiting list by 2020.

Last year’s budget also created a new task force designed to study how the state can coordinate efforts from birth to 3rd Grade.

They’re tasked with coming up with a way to study educational progress for kids who go through the state’s pre-K program and to look at ways to measure, govern and fund early childhood education programs.

The B-3 Interagency Council started meeting in January, and hasn’t done much yet, according to a report provided to the legislature.

They’re supposed to have a full report by February 2019.

A forthcoming bill from Sen. Jeff Jackson (D-Charlotte) would skip the study and put up more money more quickly.

The philosophy appears to be that the state should put more money into programs that appear to be working well already.

Collectively, Jackson says on Twitter that his bill would increase early childhood education spending from 1% of North Carolina’s budget to 2%.

According to a draft of the legislation sent to Longleaf Politics, that would come through increasing money spent on N.C. Pre-K and Smart Start, and adding an innovative series of tax credits.

  1. Nearly double the yearly funding for the N.C. Pre-K program, enough to add more than 10,000 new spots for low-income children.
  2. Add $100 million to the state’s Smart Start program.
  3. Reward early childhood education teachers and incentivize their training through tax breaks — the first industry-specific tax incentives in the state.

Here’s a breakdown of how North Carolina funds early childhood education and what Jackson’s bill would do.

Sen. Jeff Jackson at Charlotte Bilingual Preschool. Photo via Facebook.

N.C. Pre-K

Jackson proposes to pour more money into this program to open up spots for more low-income children.

After increases in funding from the General Assembly in March, North Carolina has allocated $82 million to the program in 2019-20 and $91.3 million in 2020-21.

That would increase to $104.6 million in 2019-20 and $121.3 million in 2020-21. Then it would increase further to $154.7 million by 2022.

That’s a net increase of about $63 million per year when all is said and done. Most of that goes to adding more slots. While it wouldn’t reach all 63,000 kids who are eligible, it would go a lot further toward that end.

The bill would also increase the amount the state pays per slot by 3%.

Smart Start

Again, the bill would pour more money into this program to expand the number of people it can help.

Funding has been stagnant for a half-decade. Jackson’s bill would add $20 million in funding every year until it reaches $247 million in the 2022-23 budget.

Though children would see varying levels of service, Jackson’s office estimates that an additional half-million would be touched by Smart Start with the additional money.

From Jackson’s office

Tax credits

This part of Jackson’s bill is an entirely new and innovative approach. It aims to incentivize early childhood education teachers to stay in the industry and to gain more skills.

Here’s how it would work, per the draft of the bill.

First, there would be tax credits based on years of service:

  • 1-3: $500
  • 3-5: $1,000
  • 5-7: $1,500
  • 7+: $2,000

Then there would be additional tax credits based on level of educational attainment:

  • Early Childhood Certificate (or 12-18 course hours): $500
  • Associate’s degree in early childhood education (or 60 hours toward a Bachelor’s degree): $1,000
  • Bachelor’s degree in early childhood education: $1,500
  • Professional license: $2,000

If the tax credit exceeds tax owed, the educator would get a refund from the state.

N.C. Pre-K. Photo via the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill

What are the chances for Jackson’s bill?

Over five years, Jackson’s bill would increase recurring spending by $238 million. That’s a lot, but North Carolina has the money to fund it.

Even as tax cuts have gone into effect, the state government has run a revenue surplus of $350 million this year after one of more than $550 million the year before.

With that excess capacity in mind, this bill identifies an area of underinvestment — one with bipartisan support and a record of success, no less — and gradually ups the spending there. Instead of creating new programs, it bolsters two that have already shown to be effective.

The draft of the bill that Longleaf saw isn’t finalized, and there’s a good chance some of the details will change around the edges.

But once it’s introduced, what then? As a Democrat, Jackson faces an uphill battle getting the supermajority in the opposing party to go along with it.

He’s started laying the groundwork. Jackson is the leader of an unofficial “Early Childhood Caucus” that includes Rep. Graig Meyer (D-Hillsborough) and two influential Republicans: Sen. Jeff Tarte (R-Cornelius) and Craig Horn (R-Weddington).

Horn wrote the legislation that created the B-3 Interagency Council. If I had to guess, I think the legislature will let that task force finish its work before making another big investment.

But I have a sense they’ll land on a solution that’s awfully similar to what Jackson is proposing.

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