Financial Barriers Undermine Promise of North Carolina Preschool Program

Majority of eligible children unable to enroll, benefit from high-quality pre-K

Raleigh, NC – North Carolina’s preschool program has solid evidence that it produces long-term benefits, but most children eligible for NC Pre-K are unable to enroll due to inadequate state funding, according to an analysis by the National Institute for Early Education Research.

NIEER Founder and Senior Co-Director Steven Barnett discussed Barriers to Expansion of NC Pre-K: Problems and Potential Solutions today at a press conference hosted by members of the North Carolina business community who have identified early education as a top priority for the state’s economy.

“We applaud North Carolina for supporting a high-quality program and urge the state to provide more young children the chance to benefit from NC Pre-K,” Dr. Barnett said. “Our recommendations today for modifying the current funding structure are designed to address financial realities and barriers to expansion.”

The report highlights three interrelated issues critical to expanding the NC Pre-K program: accurately determining how many children are eligible for NC Pre-k but lack access; analyzing whether county “waiting lists” reflect the need for NC Pre-K, and barriers to expanding NC Pre-K to fully meet the actual need.

The NC Pre-K program was launched in 2001 to provide to high-quality early learning opportunities to at-risk children. Research by Duke University has found NC Pre-K boosted math and reading test scores and reduced special education placements and grade repetition through the end of primary school.

However, NC Pre-K now reaches less than half (47 percent) the children it was designed to serve. Significant numbers of young children–almost 33,000–across all races and ethnicities, in both rural and urban areas, are losing the opportunity to develop foundational skills needed to succeed in school and beyond. In fact, 40 counties are serving less than half of eligible children.

While children may be attending other early education programs, those programs do not provide all the quality components of NC Pre-K—so those vulnerable children are less likely to gain the lasting benefits provided by NC Pre-K.

The new NIEER report identifies financial barriers undermining the promise of NC Pre-K, and recommends policy changes to overcome them. NIEER recommends policymakers:

  • Develop targets to reach 75% enrollment of eligible children using census data
  • Create financial incentives for 4- and 5-star centers to meet NC Pre-K standards
  • Increase the state pre-K reimbursement rate set in 2012
  • Encourage new pre-K start-ups with grants to cover expansion costs
  • Provide supplements to increase per-child funding
  • Help private pre-K providers close the $18,000 teacher compensation gap with public schools
  • Allow state funding of administrative costs up to 8%–current limit is 4%
  • Explore blending funding to serve more children and allocating funds through the school funding formula
  • Require school districts to enroll all eligible children in NC pre-K

Barriers to Expansion of NC Pre-K: Problems and Potential Solutions was supported with funding from PNC Financial Services and technical support by SAS, the analytics software company. Download the report here.

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