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Budget veto presents chance to revisit a missed opportunity: Investment in early childhood education

Gov. Roy Cooper recently vetoed North Carolina’s state budget plan. As lawmakers go back to the drawing board on critical issues like Medicaid expansion, the General Assembly would be wise to revisit a missed opportunity in its public education budget: investment in early childhood.

The challenge in North Carolina is not the quality of NC Pre-K, our state pre-kindergarten program. The challenge is that far too few children can access it. The state has built a tremendous asset, but according to Rutgers University’s National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), more than half of 4-year-old children who meet income eligibility requirements are not served by NC Pre-K. 

Yet the General Assembly has not continued to build on historic investments in access in the current budget. The reality is that the state has a long way to go in fully leveraging the potential positive impact of NC Pre-K, especially for children who will benefit the most. The only new increase in the now defunct two-year budget is a 2% bump in reimbursement rates for a subset of NC Pre-K providers, an important but insufficient move toward pay parity for teachers. Two percent will not solve a 50% plus problem.

A large body of research supports the powerful and sustained positive impact of high-quality early childhood education, which produces academic and life benefits for individuals and can reduce outcomes that cost taxpayers and society in the longer term. “High quality” is key to achieving these benefits and cost avoidances, and NC Pre-K has strong evidence supporting it. 

The program hits eight of 10 quality benchmarks set by NIEER. Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found positive near-term gains in critical language, literacy, and math skills, as well as cognitive and social and emotional development for participating children. Duke University researchers found that NC Pre-K’s benefits persist through at least eighth grade, manifesting in higher math and reading scores, fewer special education placements, and lower likelihood of being held back in school. 

National research extends the benefits even further, linking high-quality pre-K to increased high school graduation rates, higher rates of adult employment, higher earnings, and lower rates of criminal behavior. And recent research out of the University of Chicago following the children of participants in a high quality pre-K program found that those children were also more likely to complete high school and have higher adult full-time employment rates and lower rates of criminal behavior compared to peers. 

This type of intergenerational impact is especially compelling for a state like North Carolina, where poverty is persistent. A recent study from a Harvard economist ranked the city of Charlotte dead last for economic mobility, and challenges of persistent intergenerational poverty extend across our state and region. Poor children here are much more likely to grow up to be poor adults compared to other parts of the country, and North Carolina’s children have less than a 50% chance of earning more than their parents. High-quality early childhood education has the potential to break this pattern, and the General Assembly has an opportunity to invest.

As Kelly Robson, Justin Trinidad, and I detail in our recent report, several Southern states have made strong investments in early childhood. Oklahoma, Florida, West Virginia, Georgia, and Texas are among the top ten states nationally for access to state pre-K systems. Oklahoma and Florida each serve around three-quarters of their 4-year-olds, though neither of those programs rate as high on quality as NC Pre-K. And the Texas legislature just doubled down, investing significant new dollars in expanding access to full-day programs across the state. In contrast to its neighbors, North Carolina ranks close to the bottom in terms of access, followed only by Virginia. 

But unlike states with far to go in building quality programs, North Carolina has a simple problem: it needs more money. Right now, the General Assembly has a chance to overturn its short-sighted policymaking and fully fund our state’s pre-K programs. 

Our state has tremendous needs, all competing for the same dollars. But a substantial investment in NC Pre-K could be a game-changer for our state’s children — with a high return on investment for taxpayers. With the opportunity presented by Gov. Cooper’s veto, the General Assembly should find more than 2% to make a smart investment in North Carolina’s children and families.

Editor’s note: Part VII of House Bill 90 in 2018 provided a statutory increase in appropriations for NC Pre-K by $9.35 million in 2019-20 and another $9.35 million in 2020-21 and thereafter.

Jennifer O’Neal Schiess

Jennifer O’Neal Schiess is a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a national nonprofit focused on dramatically improving education and life outcomes for underserved children. Based in Charlotte, Schiess is a co-author of Bellwether’s recent publication, Education in the American South: Historical Context, Current State, and Future Possibilities.