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With so many groups focused on early childhood education and development, this long session of the General Assembly is likely to bring more attention to issues and policies surrounding the state’s youngest children.

Not many issues have as much bipartisan support as early childhood education — especially when it comes to literacy. Research shows reading proficiently by the third grade predicts students’ success later in school and life. Cross-sector leaders in North Carolina from business to nonprofit to politics point to the importance of strong early learning foundations for economic development, educational success, and public health.

“There seems to be as much bipartisan consensus for [early childhood] than anything I’ve worked on in the General Assembly,” said Rep. Josh Dobson, R-Avery. Dobson sits on the B-3 Interagency Council, formed last session to look at what a coordinated system between pre-K and the early elementary grades could look like. The council is also cross-agency, with representatives from both the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Public Instruction — the two departments that would normally oversee early childhood and K-12 issues separately. 

Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Orange, said he hopes early childhood will start to receive the same attention and investment as other parts of the educational continuum.

“We’ve undervalued early childhood because we have described it as just being child care,” Meyer said. “But now that we know so much about how the brain develops from 0-5, we should understand that it’s worth investing in those youngest of children minds in the same way, with the same dollars, that we invest in minds that are older and capable of more things, but not growing and advancing as much as kids’ brains are during early childhood.”

Two weeks ago, a group of business leaders released a report and held a press conference to push for more NC Pre-K funding and reveal ways in which the current funding structure is failing to serve 53 percent of eligible children, or 32,778 4-year-olds. NC Pre-K is the state’s preschool program for at-risk 4-year-olds, which research shows has positive impacts on kids that last at least through the eighth grade — the oldest grade of the current research cohort. Families who make 75 percent or less of the median state income are eligible, with other factors considered like English language proficiency, special needs, and military status. 

“Thousands of children across North Carolina are eligible for the program but are unable to enroll in large part because of how North Carolina Pre-K is funded currently,” said Jim Goodnight, Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of SAS. The businesses are setting a goal of reaching 75 percent of eligible children and suggesting new ways to assess need and allocate funding. 

In the 2017-18 budget, the legislature allocated an additional $27 million for the program. In a 2018 bill, funding was added to eliminate the waitlist for NC Pre-K, coming to about $9 million each year from 2019-2021. The waitlist, however, fluctuates, and the process of keeping waitlists on a local level varies. Additionally, not all families who are eligible try to enroll their children.  

Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, said he recognizes the waitlist does not account for all eligible children and hopes more NC Pre-K funding will be allocated this session.

“I’m hoping we will deal with early education more dramatically than we have,” Horn said. “The waiting list is only a small portion of eligible kids.”

Specific policy items and budget suggestions are still being sorted out as the session begins. Geoffrey Coltrane, Democratic Governor Roy Cooper’s senior education advisor, said the office is forming Gov. Cooper’s budget but cannot yet share specific education priorities. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, who has stressed early literacy in his two years in office, is releasing his legislative priorities in the coming weeks, according to Drew Elliot, DPI’s communication director. Politicians are still creating agendas and are not certain what early childhood issues will arise throughout the session. Meyer, for example, said  with last year’s session and election, he is just starting to think about this session. 

“I haven’t had time to plan ahead,” he said. “I think there’s probably a lot of people in that situation.” 

Dobson said he hopes to raise child care subsidy rates and give additional funding to Smart Start, the statewide network of partnerships that manage local early childhood services. Meyer said he hopes the session brings a focus on not just quantity, but quality as well.

“I’m also very interested in trying to figure out can we improve elements of quality by increasing wages for early childhood providers and providing high-quality professional development opportunities that help our early childhood community really become more effective in supporting all the things that we know are necessary for healthy early childhood brain development?” he said.

In June 2018, a national report by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California at Berkeley had North Carolina’s median hourly wage for preschool teachers below the national median hourly wage: $12.44 compared to $13.94. For North Carolina’s child care workers across settings, the report showed the state’s median wage falling below the national median as well: $9.86 compared to $10.72. For preschool directors, the same trend held true. North Carolina’s median hourly wage was $20.97 compared to the national median at $22.54. Read more on that report here.

Early childhood advocates, who will be lobbying the legislature to address their biggest concerns and opportunities, are working to smooth transitions from preschool to kindergarten, figure out how data can be collected and used more efficiently statewide, and build more cross-sector momentum to improve early childhood education.

A business-backed push for NC Pre-K expansion

A group of the state’s business leaders is pushing for the expansion of NC Pre-K and raising awareness on why the current funding model is holding that expansion back. In a report by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), which the group commissioned and released recently, an analysis found reasons why 44 counties in 2017 and 34 in 2018 declined expansion funding for the program.

Of those counties, 28 declined state money for the program both years, 16 of which are not close to serving all their eligible 4-year-olds. The report found the “fundamental barrier” to counties expanding the program is funding to employ qualified teachers, reach unserved communities, find new facilities, and provide transportation, among other costs. Plus, state funding only covers about 60 percent of the cost — about $9,100 per child — with an allotment that has remained stagnant since 2012 and cannot be used for capital costs. The rest of the cost is funded with a blend of sources like Head Start, Smart Start, Title 1, a federal food assistance program, and local funds. Find more on the cost of NC Pre-K here from the NC Early Childhood Foundation. 

The report found that 52 percent of 4-year-olds in the state, or 62,287 children, meet the eligibility requirements for the program, but only 47 percent of those children are participating. That leaves 32,778 4-year-olds who could but do not attend NC Pre-K. In the past, the need has been talked about in terms of a waitlist, which in 2017 was believed to consist of 4,700 students. But processes for maintaining those waitlists vary locally, which the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute found in its 2017 analysis. Some counties do not keep a waitlist at all.

And the NIEER report found the 4,700 waitlist number relied on the current capacity of the 56 counties that accepted the expansion funding in 2017, not the actual number of unserved eligible children.  

Through two surveys in 13 counties, the report found three ways the lack of funding causes issues. First, retaining qualified NC Pre-K teachers will necessitate higher pay to compete with the K-12 teacher salary schedule as demand for teachers drives up compensation. Second, as the program expands, the cost of each child rises. The report reads:

“While providers work diligently to enroll some of the most at-risk children who will benefit from the program, often the children enrolled to a provider’s capacity are those easiest to recruit and who do not require transportation. Enrolling additional children from families who may not be aware of the benefits of the program, have unstable housing arrangements, or would require transportation assistance increases costs.” 

Lastly, the report found availability of funds other than those from the state declines as the program expands. If the money is not there for that other 40 percent per slot, the program will lose money by adding more students.

The business group had several recommendations for rethinking the program’s funding structure, and three main legislative asks for this session: maintain or increase NC Pre-K funds, shift the focus from waitlists to serving 75 percent of eligible children, and undergo an analysis of NIEER’s recommendations on changes to NC Pre-K funding. 

The report’s recommendations include:

  • “Develop targets for expansion to reach 75% of eligible children statewide, with particular attention to underserved child populations and areas within the state where NC Pre-K services are least available.
  • Offer financial incentives for four- and five-star private centers, already providing pre-K for 4-year-olds, to meet the higher-quality standards to become NC Pre-K sites, thereby allowing them to receive state funding.
  • Increase reimbursement rates to account for rising costs and address specific barriers to expansion, including startup costs, thus incentivizing counties and providers to enroll at least 75% of eligible children.
  • Provide supplemental funds for NC Pre-K teacher compensation to achieve parity between private centers and public schools. 
  • Increase the artificially low, allowable amount of funding that can be used to cover administrative costs.
  • Explore mechanisms to better utilize child care subsidy funds and NC Pre-K funds to serve the same child at private centers and public schools that provide NC Pre-K.
  • Explore shifting NC Pre-K funding into the public-school funding formula in such a way that all children served can be jointly funded by state, local and federal dollars.”

A cross-agency council

Created by the General Assembly in 2017, the B-3 Interagency Council is a 12-person body tasked with imagining a unified system for children between birth and third grade. Its members are discussing potential policies to require kindergarten transition plans for districts, study the early childhood data landscape, and look at licensure requirements for early childhood educators.

The 2017 legislation reads:

“The Council shall have as its charge establishing a vision and accountability for a birth through grade three system of early education that addresses all of the following: (1) Standards and assessment. (2) Data-driven improvement and outcomes, including shared accountability measures such as the NC Pathways to Grade-Level Reading. (3) Teacher and administrator preparation and effectiveness. (4) Instruction and environment. (5) Transitions and continuity. (6) Family engagement. (7) Governance and funding.”

The council must submit a report outlining the progress they have made in creating a coordinated system by Feb. 15, 2019 to the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee, the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services, and the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations.

In its December meeting, members discussed recommendations from working groups, though specific funding asks or legislation have not yet been decided. The council’s three working groups tackle high-level categories: transitions and continuity, data-driven improvement and outcomes, and teacher and administrator preparation and effectiveness.

Pamela Shue, council member and DPI’s Associate Superintendent for Early Education, said she predicts a legislative proposal will come from issues around transitions and continuity. Unique identifiers for children across child care settings — public and private — would be useful, Shue said, to track students between systems and measure student outcomes.

“How do we get the great stuff going on in preschool forwarded to kindergarten?” she said. 

The transitions and continuity work group presented three recommendations. The first involves adding language to existing legislation to require school districts to develop plans for children’s transition to kindergarten. The policy currently requires identification of children who are at-risk of academic failure and directs school improvement teams to create plans around those children’s successful grade promotion beginning in kindergarten and transitioning between elementary and middle grades and middle and high school. 

The council’s working group recommended the law require collaboration between school districts and community early care and education providers to develop the kindergarten transition plans.

The second recommendation around transitions has five parts, all emphasizing kindergarten transition coordination:

  1. A memorandum of understanding between state education partners to work together in aligning standards, defining roles, and establishing common language across early childhood and K-12 systems
  2. Revision of the state’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plan to support coordination between early childhood and K-12 systems, including outreach to families whose children are not in regulated early childhood settings
  3. A change in State Board of Education policy that defines transition planning requirements
  4. Revision of NC Pre-K to require contract administrators to partner with other early childhood stakeholders to develop a community plan for pre-K to kindergarten transitions
  5. Revise rules to include transition planning for “4-year-old programs receiving childcare subsidy into kindergarten”

The working group’s third recommendation is a funding request for a data system that shares information on children and their families between 4-year-old programs and school districts.

Under data-driven improvement and outcomes, the working group recommended a landscape analysis of the data quality, ownership, governance, access, systems, and gaps of all data affecting birth through third grade children. This study would either be funded by a federal education grant or a legislative allocation. The group’s second recommendation was around a survey of teachers, policymakers, and organizations that would ask what data the stakeholders would find most useful. 

“Data has always been an issue,” Shue said. “How do we get all the data in a place where we can make sense of it, where it tells a story, and then also be able to use it and share it. We have so many systems collecting different things and trying to pull it together.”

Finally, there were four recommendations from the working group looking at teacher and administrator preparation and effectiveness:

  1. A study of the licensure system to see how the early childhood and elementary school systems could align their requirements
  2. Professional development opportunities for elementary school principals around early childhood education
  3. A recommendation to the Child Care Commission that all pre-K teacher assistants have a CDA (Child Development Associate) credential, be working on an associate degree in early childhood, and complete 15 hours of professional development per year
  4. A legislative funding request to increase NC Pre-K reimbursement rates “to reflect the cost for hiring high-quality educators, as defined in the NC Pre-K Program Requirements and Guidance”

Currently, professional educator’s licenses are broken up by grade level, and in some cases, subject matter. There are separate licenses for early childhood (birth through kindergarten) and elementary school teachers (K-6). Shue said the council’s mission in envisioning an aligned birth to third grade system should tackle teacher’s preparation, licensure, and qualifications across the continuum.

“I think we kind of look at it as … birth through three-year-olds, preschool, and then you’ve got K-12 system,” Shue said of the current divided education systems for young children. “It’s almost like we’ve got these different systems out there, but then we have a licensure system that is different than that. And then we have a focus at the state that’s looking at birth through third grade. So I think it’s a good time to kind of reevaluate what we’re doing in licensure and in our education system to be able to align and address the needs of young children.”

Other groups are looking at teacher licensure, including the Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission. Shue said any change in licensure should include working together with other entities and being mindful of how one change affects an entire system.

“Obviously, we need to collaborate, because any time you change licensure, then it changes teacher prep, and that changes what goes on in the classes,” Shue said. “It snowballs. So there’s a lot of moving pieces.”

A coordinated plan

The Department of Health and Human Services is in the revising process of a statewide Early Childhood Action Plan in response to an executive order from Gov. Cooper last summer. The draft was released in November and the final plan will be launched in February. Rebecca Planchard, senior early childhood policy advisor at DHHS, said over 350 people were involved in the creation of the plan, which takes into account all aspects of child development, focusing on this vision:

“By 2025, all North Carolina young children from birth to age eight will be:

(1) Healthy: Children are healthy at birth and thrive in environments that support their optimal health and well-being.

(2) Safe and Nurtured: Children grow confident, resilient, and independent in safe, stable, and nurturing families, schools, and communities.

(3) Learning and Ready to Succeed: Children experience the conditions they need to build strong brain architecture and school readiness skills that support their success in school and life.”

The idea behind the plan is to anchor the early childhood work happening around the state by several different agencies and organizations in some common goals and measures. Planchard said looking at all facets of children’s lives, not just educational outcomes, was important in developing a data-driven plan.

“As we impact young children, we can’t just talk about education in a silos,” Planchard said. “If we are just talking about school-based outcomes or learning-based outcomes for children, but we’re not also talking about health outcomes and child welfare outcomes, we’re missing significant contributors to what makes or breaks learning outcomes for kids. They all go together.”

The draft plan is broken down into 10 goals, each with their own target and annual metrics. To view the metrics, find the draft plan below. 

  1. Healthy babies: This goal deals specifically with trying to decrease the infant mortality ratio between African-American and white babies. Currently, black babies in North Carolina are 2.5 times more likely to die in their first year of life than white babies. The infant mortality rate for black babies is 12.5 deaths out of every 1,000 live births, compared to 5 out of every 1,000 white births. The idea is that decreasing the disparity from 2.5 to 1.92 by 2025 will also raise birth outcomes for all children.
  2. Access to preventative health services: The goal is to increase the percentage of young children receiving Medicaid and Health Choice from 61.9 to 68.7 percent for children 0-15 months and from 69.3 to 78.5 percent for children 3 to 6 years old — as well as ensuring these children receive well-child visits appropriate to their age.
  3. Food security: The 2025 goal is to decrease the percent of children living in homes experiencing food insecurity from 20.9 to 17.5 percent.
  4. Safe and secure housing: The goal emphasizes reducing homelessness, both for all children across North Carolina, and specifically for children from kindergarten to third grade. The plan is to decrease both by 10 percent, acknowledging that many homeless children are not accounted for in current data systems.
  5. Safe and nurturing relationships: The plan makes the goal of decreasing the rate of children from birth to 8 years old statewide who are “substantiated victims of maltreatment” by 10 percent.
  6. Family stability for children in foster care: The goal is to reunify children with their parents quickly if appropriate and to ensure kids are adopted quickly if reunification is not appropriate. Specifically, this goal aims to decrease the number of days it takes a child to either be reunified with the parents or adopted depending on the child’s age. 
  7. Social emotional well-being and resilience: This goal is slightly different in that, instead of trying to move the needle around a specific outcome, the goal is to create a way to measure social emotional well-being and resilience. 
  8. Access to high-quality early learning programs: The plan’s goal is two-fold. The first part is to increase access to high-quality care for eligible families by 10 percent, broken down by early childhood program like so: 47.8 to 52.6 percent in NC Pre-K, 30.6 to 33.7 percent for Head Start, and 23.7 to 26.1 percent for children whose families receive childcare subsidies to enroll in a four or five-star care setting. The second part of the goal is to decrease the percent of family income spent on childcare from 11.6 to 7 percent for infant care, 10.5 to 7 percent for toddler care, and 10 to 7 percent for 4-year-olds.
  9. Early childhood development: This goal is focused around increasing the percentage of children across the state who enter kindergarten “developmentally on-track.” The draft says this goal will be based on results of the Kindergarten Entry Assessment (KEA), a formative evaluation kindergarten teachers are supposed to fill out for each student in the first few months of school. 
  10. Grade-level reading: This goal is to increase reading proficiency, focusing on minority students who are less likely to be on grade-level in reading, including African-American, American Indian, and Hispanic students. The specific goal is split in two parts: to increase reading proficiency from 45.8 to 61.8 percent based on third to eighth grade students’ End-of-Grade (EOG) results and to increase proficiency from 39 to 43 percent based on the fourth grade National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). 

The DHHS team has been holding online webinars and public meetings to discuss the plan and receive input from a variety of stakeholders. The most popular piece of feedback they have received, Planchard said, has been around data collection and sharing across data systems.

“One of the most frequent pieces of feedback that has been very interesting to hear is how disconnected all of our data systems are and how people are tracking across the state, how different people answer questions related to each of these goals through a variety of different ways,” Planchard said. “And so we’re getting feedback on, ‘Is this the right way to measure this goal?’ or ‘I have an idea for another way we could think about how we’re measuring our progress here.’ And I think that speaks to, we all want to be making really strong policy decisions for kids that change outcomes for them, and we know that data should play a part in making those policy decisions. … I hope that as we revise the plan, and ultimately release it, that we are able to continue to align how rich we are in data as a state.”

The plan’s launch in February will be part of the N.C. Early Childhood Summit at the Raleigh Convention Center where Gov. Cooper will speak. Find the full draft plan below.

Pathways and Think Babies NC

Over the past three years, the N.C. Early Childhood Foundation has led the way in unifying hundreds of cross-sector partners to envision how the state could move towards higher third-grade reading proficiency for all students.

“If we’re going to think about third-grade reading, we have to look to what the research shows actually supports that, and it’s truly a proxy for child well-being,” said Tracy Zimmerman, the foundation’s executive director. 

The Pathways to Grade Level Reading initiative has worked in cross-sector groups to identify what measures impact third-grade reading proficiency, where to focus and take action first, and what to do. 

That third piece, what specific actions to take to improve reading proficiency, will be answered in the Pathways to Grade-Level Reading Action Framework, which is yet to be released. An outline of the framework, which is broken into expectations and actions, is available below.

The framework is built around four expectations: that systems are family driven and equitable, that they serve children in appropriate family and community contexts, that the education system is high-quality and accessible, and that the social-emotional health system is high quality and accessible. The actions under each expectation are beginning steps to realizing that expectation.

The framework encourages family involvement and empowerment in all early childhood services, equitable practices that prioritize children and families of color, increased access to affordable housing and transportation, and the expansion of high-quality early childhood care for those who need it most. It includes a variety of suggestions on increasing educational quality from raising teacher standards and compensation to providing research-based professional development. The plan also includes a handful of actions around expanding mental health training and awareness for teachers and communities. 

Zimmerman said the document is meant to guide the entire early childhood space in the state. Since so many organizations and individuals across North Carolina who impact young children’s lives have been a part of the intensive Pathways process, Zimmerman thinks of the work as a collective movement.

“I think it’s critical that we play this role in really making these actions and measures and expectations just the natural fabric of our early childhood efforts wherever they be, whether that’s local or state or organizationally,” Zimmerman said.

The full and final action framework, released after the original publication of this article, is below and can also be found here.

This year, the foundation has its eye on data, like many other early childhood stakeholders. They are forming a data advisory council to look strategically at improvements in early childhood data collection and coordination. They are also studying how to measure the social-emotional well-being of young children on a population level.

“I think North Carolina could be poised to really lead the nation in coming up with a portfolio, probably, of measures that together can tell us how kids are doing on a population level,” said Mandy Ableidinger, the foundation’s policy and practice leader. “I’ll say, if we can accomplish that, it would really add a lot to the field nationally.”

They are also looking at “children’s outcomes before they enter kindergarten,” Ableidinger said. “So when you’re looking at things like their gross motor skills, their literacy, their social-emotional skills, self-regulation, how do we measure all of those things to ensure that our schools are ready for the kids that are coming into them?”

There are already examples of what the Pathways work’s impact can look like. The Early Childhood Action Plan above uses many of the Pathways measures. The B-3 Interagency Council’s framework mentions the Pathways work as potential accountability standards for a coordinated birth-third grade system. Zimmerman also sits on the council. The General Assembly has recognized the work as a model for early childhood coordination across agencies. And Think Babies NC, an initiative focusing on infant and toddler needs across the state, has aligned its mission with the Pathways work as well. Zimmerman said legislative issues around infant and toddlers will be a focus for the advocacy community this year.

Think Babies NC, led by the NC Early Education Coalition, outlined the organization’s top issues, some of which may be addressed by the legislature, in a webinar in January. The issues are divided into three main categories: healthy beginnings, supported families, and early care and education. Its first priority: the 2020 census count.

In 2010, over 20,000 young children were not counted in the 2010 census, which affects federal funding of foster care, child care subsidies, food stamps, and benefits under The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Think Babies NC estimates a census undercount could threaten up to $5 billion in funding. Children younger than five are one of several populations that the U.S. Census Bureau deemed “hard to count,” as well as non-English speakers, highly-mobile individuals, racial minorities, and low-income families. 

“We’re not getting our fair share of federal money,” said Michele Rivest, NC Early Education Coalition’s policy director. “So it’s important that we put this at the top of our list. It’s maybe something you in the past have just kind of went, ‘Ok, I’ll fill out my form.’ This time we want to make sure we have the funding to reach unserved communities and populations …”

This fact sheet from the U.S. Census Bureau explains common situations when a young child is not counted and provides tips on how to ensure every child is counted once and in the right location.

The group is also pushing to expand Medicaid, calling for coverage of a potential 100,000 parents that would benefit from expansion. 

“We know that high-quality affordable health care helps parents work and supports their children, and that parents can’t get to work or take care of their children when they’re not healthy,” Rivest said. 

It is unclear whether Medicaid expansion could gain some traction this year with Republican supermajorities in the House and Senate broken by the 2018 election. This means the Republican majority, whose leaders have struck down the idea of expansion for several years, cannot override Gov. Cooper’s vetoes without Democrats’ help. But the expansion still needs some bipartisan support. A proposed study on the cost of expansion died in the Senate in June 2018. And a bill called Carolina Cares, filed in 2017, was left untouched in the 2017 and 2018 sessions. The Winston-Salem Journal reported in November that the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, is planning to refile that bill this session.

Other health-related measures the group is backing include providing accommodations for pregnant women in their work environments and adopting paid leave for state employees. Think Babies NC also wants to see more funding for child care subsidies, more options for high-quality child care across the state, and better education and compensation for early childhood educators. 

“We know there are teachers being paid minimum wage across our state,” Rivest said during the webinar. “We know they are living in poverty. This has got to change because we can’t say that this is a quality infant-toddler workforce when they don’t have the educational skills and they don’t have the economic supports to stay in the classroom.”

What are your education priorities?

Now, we want to know what your education priorities are for this long session. Sign up below to join our new project — the People’s Session — when it launches in a few weeks. You’ll have the chance to weigh in on policy statements and submit your own.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on February 13, 2019 to include the final version of NC Early Childhood Foundation’s Pathways to Grade-Level Reading Action Framework.

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.