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‘The cry for universal preschool can be heard at every playground, in every single moms group’

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  • North Carolina is not "within reach" of universal pre-K, according to @PreschoolToday's annual State of Preschool Yearbook, which captured the pandemic's toll on pre-K in 2021. #nced
  • For one mom in Garner with her career on pause, pre-K access would mean "space for us to be able to breathe again." #nced
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Katie Walden’s son’s part-time preschool closed for the day Monday. That’s one small bit of a large string of disruptions to her family’s routine and budget because of a lack of affordable, high-quality early childhood learning options.

“To say that the last two years has been a challenge is a gross understatement,” Walden, who lives in Garner and stays at home to care for her three children, said on a National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) press call Monday.

The call marked the organization’s release of its annual State of Preschool Yearbook. The report captures states’ preschool access, funding, and quality for the 2020-2021 school year — the first school year “fully impacted by the pandemic,” said Steven Barnett, NIEER’s senior co-director and founder. It found pre-K enrollment dropped in nearly every state, including in North Carolina, which saw nearly a 24% drop in the children served in pre-K from 2020 to 2021.

From NIEER’s 2021 State of Preschool Yearbook

Walden quit her job when she could not find a good, affordable preschool option for her son, she said. Her family lives paycheck to paycheck on her husband’s annual income of $50,000, relying on Medicaid, which made more financial sense than paying for preschool.

“There were zero options for us,” Walden said. “Zero options for our family that was living right outside our state’s capital.”

When it comes to public preschool, North Carolina’s program, NC Pre-K, ranked 26th in access among the 50 states and Washington, D.C., in 2021 — the same spot it held in the 2020 report.

Yet the state served fewer children than years before, reaching about 19% of the state’s 4-year-olds compared with 25% in 2020. Nationally, 25% of 4-year-olds were in public pre-K in 2021.

Last year was the first time in 20 years that enrollment in publicly funded state pre-K programs declined across the country, Barnett said.

“The pandemic erased an entire decade of progress in preschool enrollment,” he said. “Challenges such as health risks, closed classrooms, and remote preschool disrupted an already fragile system.”

North Carolina’s pre-K spending did increase by about 9% from 2020 to 2021, totaling $113.5 million, up almost $16 million from 2020 — including federal relief funds. State spending per child increased $2,361, for a total of $7,816.

The state’s program meets eight of NIEER’s 10 quality benchmarks. The two it doesn’t meet have remained consistent in recent years and focus on teacher assistant qualifications and professional development requirements for teacher assistants.

From NIEER’s 2021 State of Preschool Yearbook

Six states were serving at least 70% of 4-year-olds before the pandemic — Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin — plus the District of Columbia. North Carolina was not included in another 10 states “within reach” of that benchmark: Georgia, Maine, New York, Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Maryland, New Mexico, South Carolina, and Texas.

‘North Carolina must address the pervasive gaps in access’

North Carolina is one of 34 states with income requirements for their pre-K programs. NC Pre-K targets 4-year-olds in low-income families, with about half of the state’s 4-year-olds eligible. Before the pandemic, the program’s reach had been stagnant since 2008, reaching about a quarter of 4-year-olds, or about half of eligible children.

Multiple reports in recent years have detailed NC Pre-K expansion barriers, including space, transportation, insufficient funding, and a lack of support for programs to meet quality requirements. The NIEER report estimates how much it would cost to reach all low-income 3- and 4-year-olds with public preschool. In North Carolina, 53,965 low-income children are not being served, and reaching them would cost nearly $558 million.

“Too many children in North Carolina and across the country missed out on a year of learning,” Allison Friedman-Krauss, NIEER assistant research professor, said in a news release. “North Carolina must implement best practices that mitigate health risks in order to get children back into classrooms. And teachers are burnt out as they’ve worked to provide support and learning to young students amid the challenges of the past year. There is no time to waste. North Carolina must address the pervasive gaps in access to high-quality early learning in the state.”

For Walden, child care and early learning disruptions have meant sleepless nights worrying about affording food, falling behind in her career, and whether she can throw a party for her son’s 4th birthday next week.

“The cry for universal preschool can be heard at every playground, in every single moms group, and other struggling parent groups on Facebook and beyond,” she said. “This pandemic has caused so many families to be without quality care for their children. And I live in a place just like so many others where companies are begging for employees, but how can you return to work or keep current positions when we don’t have affordable quality care for our children?”

For Walden, universal preschool access would mean “the possibility of escaping from Medicaid, a second income, and space for us to be able to breathe again.”

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.