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Q&A | Sen. Jim Burgin’s ‘four threes’ of early childhood investment

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EdNC sat down with Sen. Jim Burgin, R-Harnett, Lee, Sampson, to talk about his priorities for early childhood policy in this year’s legislative session. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

EdNC: You have a background in health insurance, and you chair the Committee on Appropriations on Health and Human Services and the Health Care Committee. Last year, you were an advocate for expanding postpartum Medicaid coverage. Tell us about that.

Burgin: We actually put it in the budget. Under prior law, a woman that was pregnant, but was covered under Medicaid, she lost her coverage two months after the baby was born. The baby would go on the CHIP program, the Child Health Program, but the mother would come off.

A woman just needs more time for health care, especially if she has a complicated birth. So we extended that to a year, and that is now the law in North Carolina. We are covering women for 12 months, and that’s another thing to make sure that these kids are getting a healthy start.

EdNC: You’ve mentioned what you call “the four threes”: the first three months of pregnancy, the first three months of life, the first three years of life, and third-grade reading. Why are these periods important?

Burgin: If you let us have an impact on a mother and an infant in the first three months of pregnancy, make sure that they understand about doctor’s visits, make sure they get on their prenatal vitamins, make sure that they understand the significance of not using marijuana or any drugs or smoking — the number one reason listed on death certificates for infant mortality is low birthweight, and low birthweight is directly tied to those things that I mentioned.

The first three months after birth, I really want to be engaged. And so we’re looking at doulas now. Fifty-two percent of all the babies born last year were born under Medicaid in the state of North Carolina, and that’s pretty significant. So I’m really targeting that group first, and first-time mothers especially.

When Anne and I were having kids, between my mother and her mother and related folks, we had a lot of information. A lot of people don’t have those extended families to ask, “Is this a problem? Do I need that? What do I need to do about this? How do I need to do that?” So I think that’s really important as to having somebody that knows, you need to go to the doctor, or you need to tell the doctor this … and just diet, a lot of women don’t understand the importance of diet, and especially women that are in these food deserts.

I want to monitor children through the first three years, and then we’ll check on them again in third grade. And if you let me get a kid to third grade, if I’m involved, they’re gonna be a great reader. And I think that’s a secret for long-term success in education, is being a great reader.

EdNC: What kinds of supports do you see as most needed in the first three years of life?

Burgin: Once the child is born, it’s real hard on folks where both of them are working, and they’re trying to have child care. These places start taking babies at six weeks now. That’s just real hard. I think a lot of people, a lot of women especially, would like to spend a lot more time with their child. And, you know, that bonding, and all of that.

And I think we’ve got to be smarter about having more health care availability in schools, especially with young children, and making sure that they don’t have something that’s an issue. We can’t make people do things, but I think we can hopefully show them. Everybody wants the best for their child, I hope, and if we give them the tools, I think that’s gonna be big.

EdNC: What are your priorities when it comes to giving families high-quality child care choices?

Burgin: With child care, we have the star system, and I wish every child care facility would be a four- or five-star, but that’s just not the reality out in some of the rural areas. And we struggled greatly during the pandemic for all these places to stay open. We’ve got a financial issue coming up next year, where we’ve put these bonuses out there, this pay, that people were making $12.25 an hour are now making $15 an hour, and that money is going to run out later next year.

We’re trying to figure out that. It could be as much as $300 million that we have to come up with. But we have the same thing in the nursing homes. So on the spectrums, early childhood and late in life, we have the same issue. We have folks that we raised their pay, because those facilities had to stay open and we had to keep those people there. But there’s day cares that are shutting down. People are either worn out or they can’t get help.

EdNC: What can be done?

I’ve been on three different phone calls with the White House pitching this idea to HHS … I want to use Medicaid dollars to pay for folks to go to community college and provide child care at the community college for them. And the reason it would be at the community colleges, we’re also going to be training folks that might be in the same program to become workers, qualified, highly-educated workers, to go into those (centers) and either help open more, or, you know, there’s all kinds of ways we could do it, but if it’s at the community college, we can really make sure it’s high quality.

And then at the end of that two years of their certificate or whatever, I want to guarantee them a job. And then we’re going to make sure they have a job.

My argument to the White House was, shouldn’t (in) every government program, the measure of success is people not needing it? This should be a temporary situation, not a long-term. We have over 500,000 people that have been on Medicaid for more than 10 years. Now, a number of those are children, but we’ve got a lot of adults on there, too.

I think that God puts something in us, that makes us want to be able to take care of ourselves, and especially take care of somebody that we love. It’s gong to be a combination of education, combination of giving people the right tools. But I really want to be able to tap that federal money to use it, and my argument is, this is a short-term investment for long-term savings … I’m a business guy. I don’t spend money, I invest money, and I want to invest in people’s futures.

Now there’s going to be people health-wise that are going to stay on the plan, and I understand that. There’s always going to be children we’re going to look after, elderly we’re going to look after, and the disabled we’re going to look after.

But everybody else, I think, wants to work, and would work if they have the right opportunity … We’ve identified with community colleges the six areas that we desperately need instructors in, and they’re the most highly placeable jobs. And that’s what I’m going to concentrate on.

EdNC: Would you spend more public dollars depending on parents’ income to help them afford child care?

Burgin: Under a bill that I’m running called, “The Money Follows the Child,” the money will actually follow the child wherever they go … So the first year they get $1,000, second year $2,000, then it caps at the state money, which is $7,000 and something. That doesn’t even count the county money or any of the local money. This is just state funds. Because I want parents to be able to make a choice on whether they want their children to go to whatever school or whatever. Could we do that with child care? I don’t know. I mean, it’s something that we could think about, and say, you know, we’re so concerned and so want to make sure that we get these children off to a healthy good start. But I’ve got to think through that. Money we’re already spending is one thing.

EdNC: When it comes to third-grade reading, how do you tie these early investments to this marker that the state is already paying attention to and investing in?

Burgin: Our daughter developed a love for reading to the point of where she would get in trouble for not doing her chores at home, and we would catch her behind a couch reading or somewhere hiding reading. I want that for every child. I want every child to have such a love for reading. I want people to be lifetime learners.

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.