Make no mistake, quality pre-kindergarten matters to higher education – it has implications for third-grade reading proficiency, eighth-grade math1 and placing students on a trajectory that leads to a degree and a well-paying job.
After launching its NC Pre-K program in 2001, North Carolina grew enrollment to 22% of its 4-year-olds over the next seven years. It has remained at roughly that level ever since, ranking 26th last year out of 44 states and the District of Columbia that offer pre-kindergarten.
Some states have far-reaching pre-kindergarten programs – 10 states enroll more than 50% of their 4-year-olds, and Florida’s enrollment surpasses 77%.2
As part of a panel discussion at the NC Chamber’s Conference on Education last year, Jim Hansen, Regional President of PNC Bank, said high-quality pre-K increases a child’s literacy development by six to eight months – a significant advantage for a 4-year-old.
Hansen noted that U.S. News & World Report ranked North Carolina’s pre-kindergarten program No. 1 in the nation in quality – yet 41st in enrollment.
“We have the quality, but we’re not providing the access,” he said.3
At this year’s conference, Venessa Harrison, President of AT&T North Carolina, said a group of CEOs recommended last year that North Carolina expand access to high-quality, full-day pre-kindergarten – and state legislators listened.
“In its 2017-19 budget, the General Assembly for the first time since 2010 made significant increases in funding for Pre-K,” Harrison said. “Roughly half of the children eligible for the program will be able to participate in it. That is a lot of progress. But we still have a long way to go.”
House Bill 90, passed by the General Assembly in February 2018, increased funds for NC Pre-K by $9.35 million in 2019-20 and again in 2020-21, bringing total state funding to $91.4 million.
It remains to be seen, but legislative staff projected at the time that the increases would provide enough funds to eliminate the current NC Pre-K wait list by 2021.4
The CEO group questions the wait list as a measure, however. Reaching 50% of eligible children – which NC Pre-K will do if it eliminates the current list – is no reason to celebrate, Hansen said at this year’s conference.
“That’s not enough,” he said. “Our goal is to get to 75% of eligible children enrolled in NC Pre-K.”
Wait lists for a 10-month program for 4-year-olds have limits as a measure of demand, he said. The program’s popularity depends on family awareness, he said, but the state offers limited outreach.
When the state provided funds for 1,750 additional children last year, it had requests for more than 6,000 children from 56 of the state’s 100 counties. Some 44 counties declined state funding altogether, though, and officials need to understand why, Hansen said.
For 2019, the CEO group wants the state to maintain or increase state funds, move away from using wait lists as a metric and explore modifications to state matching requirements, Hansen said.
After an initial spike from 2001-2003 attributable to start-up costs, state spending per child enrolled in NC Pre-K settled at $5,500-6,000 per student, then declined after the Great Recession. The state invested $5,308 per child in 2017, ranking it 18th among the 44 states that offer pre-kindergarten.