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SAS CEO Jim Goodnight: Change NC’s pre-K funding to reach more children

Change NC’s pre-K funding to reach more children
CEO at SAS, Jim Goodnight

Almost 33,000 North Carolina four-year-olds could not go to preschool today – even though they are eligible for one of the highest quality programs in the country.

Why? In large part because of the way state funding for that program – NC Pre-K – is structured. Too many North Carolina counties simply do not have the necessary funds to augment state funding, and too many struggle to find teachers, classrooms and transportation.

If we are going to open doors for these children, we must restructure how NC Pre-K is funded.

For over two years, I have been working with a group of North Carolina business leaders, urging state leaders to implement policies that will increase third-grade reading proficiency – a key education milestone. Children not reading proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school, undermining their ability to develop skills needed in our competitive, global economy.

Participation in NC Pre-K is a key ingredient for achieving this milestone. In fact, recently-released longitudinal research from Duke University showed that the positive impacts of NC Pre-K last through at least the eighth grade.

These positive outcomes were confirmed by the North Carolina General Assembly’s Program Evaluation Division in May. When directed to determine what economically-disadvantaged counties were doing that resulted in their students being high achievers, the Division found that these counties were enrolling at least 75 percent of their eligible children in NC Pre-K.

I appreciate that the General Assembly increased funding for NC Pre-K over the last two years and will do so again through this year’s biennial budget. However, even with these funding increases, too many counties struggle to expand their programs.

Here is what happened. In 2017, state funding for an additional 1,750 children to enroll in the program was announced by the General Assembly. However, 44 of our 100 counties declined any expansion dollars for their NC Pre-K programs – even though thousands of eligible children lived there who could not enroll.

This was not a one-time occurrence. In 2018, when funding was again increased, 34 counties declined additional funding even though they had thousands of eligible but unserved children.  And yet again, this year, 34 counties declined expansion funding, including Wake County.

As business people, we wanted to understand why counties would decline new funding to help educate their children. We also wanted to understand how state funding for NC Pre-K could be used as effectively as possible to reach more of the children the program was designed to serve.

To get answers, we retained the National Institute for Early Education Research – NIEER, a nationally recognized expert on quality, state-funded pre-K programs that has helped other states effectively expand their programs.

NIEER developed a new report, diving into the challenges every North Carolina county is facing to expand – and even maintain – NC Pre-K. What NIEER found is that most of those challenges exist because of the way state funding for the program is structured.

As detailed by NIEER, North Carolina’s state funding – by design – only covers 60 percent of the costs for NC Pre-K. Counties must cover the remaining 40 percent, and many just do not have the extra funds. Other barriers also exist, especially recruiting and retaining qualified teachers, classroom space, transportation costs, and a state reimbursement rate to NC Pre-K providers that has not changed since 2012.

These barriers can be overcome.

Today, NC Pre-K enrolls just over 29,000 children, about 47 percent of eligible children. Even with the increases additional funding will allow, over 30,000 eligible children across the state will still be unable to participate.

Our goal to enroll at least 75 percent of eligible children in every county. We can achieve that goal by addressing the financial realities and barriers to expansion through modification of the state funding structure.

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