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Legislators form pre-K caucus

Looking beyond the current legislative session, a bipartisan group of lawmakers met a few days ago to begin a process of exploring North Carolina’s needs in child care and early childhood education.

“Early childhood education has potential that isn’t being reflected in today’s politics, and that has to change,” said Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, who is a lead organizer of this informal early childhood caucus.

The initial meeting attracted nearly 20 legislators, who heard a presentation and watched a video on children’s brain development by the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative. Jackson said the legislators’ group would study the “science and sociology’’ of early childhood.

Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Mecklenburg County Republican, has collaborated with Jackson in this exercise. A member of the Senate committee on higher education, Tarte recalled that he has met with all the chancellors in the University of North Carolina system and asked them for the key indicators of student success.

“Universally – and shocking to me – the number one indicator is how much pre-K a kid has,” said Tarte.

On the House side, the lead organizers are Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican who chairs the education committee, and Rep. Graig Meyer, an Orange County Democrat with long experience in consulting with schools to reduce disparities among students. Horn has been working on the possibility of structuring a birth-to-third-grade continuum.

Meanwhile, the budget proposed by the Senate provides $300,000 to finance “a plan by the Program Evaluation Division to consolidate the NC PreK, Smart Start, and Child Care Subsidy programs.” The provision is among the many items to be determined in House-Senate negotiations now getting started.

In the short term, the outlook is for rather minor tweaks to the system, running in place while lawmakers consider next steps. The Senate would give a rate increase for young infant and toddler care in rural counties, but, according to the NC Child advocacy organization, the Senate budget would result in 520 fewer NC pre-K slots. NC Child prefers the House budget, which raises income eligibility for some child care subsidies and preserves pre-K funding.  

 Over the longer term, large, important questions loom:

Currently, the state’s main three early childhood programs are clustered in the Department of Health and Human Services. Is that the appropriate place, at a time when education has become increasingly central?

Another question is, as Jackson pointed out, how to align early childhood education with the state’s new Read to Achieve program, which requires students to reach certain benchmarks in the 3rd grade? Students who do not hit reading proficiency targets are required to take summer remediation, and some are retained in 3rd grade.

In recent years, as both the state and nation have racheted up education expectations – through Common Core, No Child Left Behind and such – a dramatic change has taken place in kindergarten, which has become less play-oriented and more curriculum-driven. Does North Carolina have to do more to prepare children for kindergarten? To what extent does the state have reason to require alignment with kindergarten expectations from private child care providers?

North Carolina’s demographics present a special challenge. Blacks and Latinos now represent roughly four out of 10 of the state’s pre-school-age children. And, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty, more than 7 out of 10 young black and Latino children live in low-income families – low-income defined as annual income of $47,250 or below for a family of four in 2013. Is there not an opportunity to forestall education achievement gaps through pre-kindergarten intervention?

Lingering over all such questions is the matter of financing. Expanding quality child care and pre-K is not inexpensive – though they have long-fuse payoffs both to individuals and to government in terms of reduced spending on social supports, law enforcement, and education remediation. As the early childhood caucus proceeds, it will have to address how to give North Carolina’s young people the strongest possible start in life and in school. 

The “Brain Buildings’’ video shown at the legislators’ meeting on early childhood can be found online here.


Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.