There are a lot of areas in which North Carolina’s proposed budget falls short. That’s no surprise. But what if I told you that funding two or three key aspects of the budget could greatly reduce our costs down the road? And what if those two or three key aspects were all in the same category?
That category is early childhood care and education.
Michele Rivest from the NC Child Care Coalition says, “Without access to early education, there are low-income, disadvantaged children who will arrive at school not ready to succeed, they will be behind in kindergarten, and won’t be at same reading level and math level as peers by third grade. It’s a bad start for kids who won’t have access [to high quality early education]. The same kids are more likely to drop out of school and remain in poverty.”
In an ideal world we could eliminate the pre-kindergarten wait list completely and make early education available to those who need it. However, we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in North Carolina.
The Governor and State House have secured expansion funds for early pre-k. Four million dollars, in fact. Or 800 spots. This sounded great until I learned that there are 202 eligible kids in my county alone and a little more than 7,000 in the rest of the state. Those proposed funds would only provide an additional two slots per county.
Meanwhile, the Senate hasn’t even budgeted for the 800 new pre-k slots. (Rivest is optimistic that the House will convince the Senate to add the money: “If they can figure out a budget that can support that, that’s the way forward.”)
Aside from the thousands of children on the pre-k waitlist, there are another 20,000 in North Carolina on the childcare subsidy waitlist.
Through a combination of federal and state money, NC offers vouchers to qualifying families to help them cover the cost of early childcare and education. However, when there aren’t enough funds, the state prioritizes. Even with priority, the well dries up.
Without these subsidies, families can’t go to work. Rivest says, “Parents are trying to work and support their family — yet that opportunity door is closed to them. Then they have a young child who is probably already behind and who would grow and develop and benefit [in pre-k] who won’t have those opportunities to prepare for school — leaving children and families behind when we don’t need to do that as a society.”
The subsidies are not an entitlement program; 80% of the funds come from the federal government. The only way to reduce the wait list is to increase the state budget.
Those numbers are so large, it’s scary. Yet Rivest says it’s “sort of the average waiting list size year after year.” Poll after poll shows that the public supports more spending for early child care and education — yet, Rivest explains, “In situations where we have a surplus of funding, we are not investing it in the study-based programs [Smart Start, NCPreK, etc.] that move our quality of life and economy forward.”
When advocacy groups use numbers like “20,000 families,” policymakers become paralyzed, feeling like the problem is insurmountable.
While we are on the topic of subsidies, NC Child Care Coalition has a third agenda item they are trying to push through during this short session: improving market subsidy rates.
Rivest explains: “If you are a program serving families who receive subsidies, you get reimbursed at a certain rate. Last year, the government improved rates for infants and toddlers in tier 1 and 2 counties. The House budget has plans for preschool in the same counties, an estimated $3.4 million dollars.”
Without fair rates, childcare providers aren’t enticed to serve subsidized families and give them access to high-quality organizations. Without these subsidies, families can’t afford childcare. A parent has to stay home with their child, so the parent isn’t contributing to the economy and the child falls further behind. Because of the cost of running the programs, fewer programs are serving subsidized children than before.
From the Coalition perspective, Rivest says it’s important parents and children know about the political process and advocacy. “We need to get business leaders involved.” But, she adds, “anyone who cares about the future of young children and families in our state should be calling for greater investments in quality early care and education. It’s a proven strategy and we know it works. It’s an asset we need to value and expand for our state’s well-being.”
So let your legislators and policy makers know it’s important to you. Call your house and senate representative. We need more people to call and more funding provided, or we’ll be spending more money down the road on services we wish we didn’t have to provide to help the adults we didn’t help as children.
Jennifer Brick is a freelance writer and former teacher in Durham, North Carolina. She earned her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College. Follow her on Twitter @jenbrickwrites.