While a long-awaited deal on elementary school class funding gobbled up most of the headlines, the General Assembly’s change to pre-K spending in early 2018 is actually a much bigger deal.

The short version: With these changes, every low-income family that wants a slot in a free public pre-K program should be able to have one by the year 2020.

With this significant accomplishment, North Carolina is in a position to become a national leader in preschool education should the state legislature desire to take the next step. The problem — that next step would likely cost many hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

How is N.C. Pre-K structured?

The state’s public preschool program was introduced in the early 2000s as More at Four, a signature accomplishment of Gov. Mike Easley1.

It’s designed to provide a sound preschool education to at-risk 4-year-olds and is widely regarded as one of the highest quality in the nation.

To be eligible, children must be from families making less than 75 percent of the state median income — though there are also a smaller number of spots open to children with developmental disabilities, language barriers or have parents on active duty in the military.

The state does not operate any public preschools. Instead, this money pays for pre-K slots in private daycares, federal Head Start preschools and public schools. About half are in public schools and half in private settings.

While costs vary depending on setting, it takes roughly $9,000 per year to educate each 4-year-old in the N.C. Pre-K program. The state pays about three-quarters of that, with federal and local governments picking up most of the rest.

About 27,000 children are currently served by the program, with just under 5,000 on a waitlist.

Adding spots is a little cheaper per child. Adding 3,500 spots costs around $13.5 million per year, according to state budget estimates — which is what the state legislature approved this year. The numbers for this year haven’t come in yet, but that should put a big dent in the waitlist.

North Carolina currently ranks No. 25 in the nation in public pre-K access with about 22 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds enrolled.

What exactly happened with pre-K in 2018?

The idea is to clear the rest of that waitlist using state lottery money.

Here’s the language in the bill:

These figures under “appropriation” is an increase from the $78.2 million that was previously allocated to the program from the state lottery2. The state spends a total of around $145 million on the pre-K program.

The additional $13 million per year is estimated to be enough to wipe out the remaining waitlist in 2020.

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What would come next?

Moving forward from this big step would require a significant shift in how North Carolina thinks about public preschool.

The next logical step would be to provide money to all of the estimated 62,000 low-income children who are eligible for N.C. Pre-K. About half of them are currently being served — but it’s unclear why more people aren’t applying.

Opening up slots for all the rest of those kids would cost $119 million per year, according to our back-of-the-envelope math. That’s a big number — roughly what the state pays to fund the Department of Agriculture of the Division of Motor Vehicles.

However, it doesn’t take into account any marketing dollars or support staff that would be required to get people who currently aren’t on the waitlist to apply3.

Gov. Roy Cooper has said that North Carolina should repeal the state’s tax cuts — essentially raising taxes — to pay for more preschool and additional education funding.

That would cover it. The tax cuts are expected to put $132 million back into North Carolinian’s pockets this year, mostly through raising the standard deduction.

Of course, Cooper has not put cutting his office’s economic incentives on the table. These cost the state $185 million last year.

Gov. Roy Cooper

What about expanding who is eligible for public pre-K?

I haven’t seen any studies on what the numbers would look like if N.C. Pre-K eligibility was extended up to the state median income. It would certainly mean some incremental enrollment.

The more common policy change being considered nationally is universal pre-K. That means the programs are available to all children regardless of income level.

Only three states in the country have universal public pre-K programs: Florida, Georgia and Oklahoma4. About 38 other states have programs that are income-restricted, like North Carolina’s.

But even they don’t always offer access to everyone. Georgia’s lottery-funded pre-K system also uses lotteries in some areas to see who gets in to the private daycares offering public pre-K. Florida does guarantee all 4-year-olds a slot.

There is political momentum behind doing this in North Carolina. The problem, as usual, is money.

Says N.C. Rep. Craig Horn, courtesy of the News & Observer:

“I think that’s absolutely critical to the future of the state and the future of the nation,” he said. “Whether or not it should be government funded is a separate issue. … If somebody sees ‘free,’ everybody signs up for it.”

How much would it cost?

An effort underway in Mecklenburg County offers some clues. The county commission is currently evaluating a plan to offer universal pre-K to Mecklenburg residents.

Right now, about 4,000 low-income children (out of 12,000 4-year-olds total) are being served by a public pre-K program, either N.C. Pre-K or the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Bright Beginnings program.

A consultant pegged the costs of expanding pre-K access to all 4-year-olds in Mecklenburg County at between $50 million and $71 million, depending on whether the county asks families to pay on a sliding scale.

Generally, a rule of thumb is to multiply Mecklenburg County by 10 to get a sense of the state as a whole.

That would put universal pre-K at close to three-quarters of a billion dollars per year to run in North Carolina. That’s a lot of money.

Where would the money come from?

Conceivably, it could be done. The state projected a $425 million budget surplus this year.

But without significant tax increases, decreases in quality or a revamped lottery program, it would be very difficult.

Florida, for example, is regularly criticized for low per-student pre-K funding.

The lessons of kindergarten

North Carolina has historically been a leader in early childhood education.

North Carolina was actually the first state to make full-day kindergarten universally available5.

Back then, it only cost about $12 million to fund6.

But it also relied on the latest science detailing early childhood education’s benefits — and depended on the business community to advocate for it and a significant public investment.

Expect to see more movement on this in the next half-decade.

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Homepage photo via the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.


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