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Early childhood leaders convene in Greensboro to address access and quality across state and nation

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the House’s budget proposal does not include funding for additional NC Pre-K slots. The proposal does include funding for additional NC Pre-K slots, allocated in last year’s legislative session.

The House budget released at the end of April included, for the first time in a decade, funding increases to Smart Start, the network of local partnerships across the state that administer funds to a variety of early childhood programs and centers. The following week, about a thousand early childhood professionals gathered in Greensboro for Smart Start’s national conference — an opportunity to think about early childhood education and development systemically.

The youngest years of children’s lives have come to the forefront of political and policy conversations in North Carolina. The importance of strong starts for children and their families is generally understood, said Cindy Watkins, president of The North Carolina Partnership for Children, the organization that leads Smart Start across the state. Now, Watkins said, the question is, “How?” Smart Start’s local expertise is a big part of the answer, she said.

“Very often, policymakers want a single solution or a single set of solutions that are programmatic,” Watkins said. “They want to fund a nurse home visiting program. They want to fund a literacy program. And what they are beginning to understand now, I believe, is you have to also fund the system that delivers those services and integrates them at the community level. Because none of these programs operate in silos, or they shouldn’t if they’re really thinking about meeting the needs of the child and the family.”

Funding for more access is needed, Watkins said. The House budget includes funding from last year’s legislative session for an additional 1,700 NC Pre-K slots in 2019-20 and another 1,700 slots in 2020-21. The proposal also allocates an increase in the reimbursement rate centers are paid for providing NC Pre-K slots. But, according to Watkins, access is only one part of the solution. Along with managing federal funds, state NC Pre-K funds for about half the 100 counties, and funds from foundations, Smart Start partnerships monitor the quality of programs receiving those funds.

“It’s a lot that goes into it,” Watkins said. “It’s finding the kids, enrolling the kids, monitoring the classroom.”

The quality of programs, Watkins said, is not something that is worth sacrificing for more access.

“Quality costs more,” she said. “We can scale up and probably serve every 4-year-old in some sort of program, but we’re not willing to compromise on the quality of the program in order to serve more children. It’s a delicate balancing act, because you want as many children as possible to have access, but we know that in the long term it’s not good for kids to have less of a quality experience.”

The Smart Start conference ran from Tuesday to Thursday and drew early childhood professionals from over 25 states to think about early childhood systems and share innovative practices. Watkins said this year’s focus shifted towards parental and family support for children who are not reached by formal early childhood programs.

“We’ve spent so much of our years and our time and our resources focusing on improving the quality of child care, and through mandates in our legislation, we have to spend most of our money in that arena,” she said. “But what we realized, most children are not ever going to be in a formal child care setting, so we really need to focus more intensively and intentionally on meeting the needs of children in the context of their family and their home.”

Money is still the greatest need in expanding the reach of programs, Watkins said. She said legislative tax cuts are prohibiting the state from making necessary financial investments. The early childhood workforce is in dire need of that funding, she said.

“The funding that is so critical would really open up more capacity for child care providers to serve children,” she said. “… Child care workers across the state are some of the lowest paid people of any industry and so it’s really hard to recruit people to go into the field, it’s hard to pay them for what they do.”

Reaching across the aisle

North Carolina has seen cross-sector pushes for early childhood education and development in recent years from health, education, and business leaders. That’s not the case everywhere in the country.

Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children Executive Director Beth Oppenheimer shared on a panel Wednesday that Idaho political leaders have just now gotten comfortable with using the words “early childhood education.” In a very red state, Oppenheimer said politicians have insisted that what happens during early years of children’s lives is “a family issue.”

“In Idaho, I feel like we are maybe 10 to 20 years behind other states in even having the conversation around early childhood education,” she said. “For so many years, we have been trying to push this football down the field, and in Idaho, we don’t have the early childhood advocates that other states do.”

How does early childhood become the conversation to have? How was the bipartisan support on the issue garnered in North Carolina? Mandy Ableidinger from the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation (NCECF) said the organization started with an existing concern of leading Republican politicians at the time: third-grade reading proficiency. Years later, the work of the Pathways to Grade-Level Reading Initiative has convened cross-sector leaders from both sides of the aisle to connect dozens of indicators to that goal.

Ableidinger said connecting prenatal health, low birthweight, family economic security, and other issues to third-grade reading made a connection for those in power of the importance of not just high-quality early learning environments, but also a range of services to help children and their families starting before birth.

“If that’s the outcome you want, we’re going to show you what you need to put in place to get there. We were already agreeing on what the goal was, and so it was a matter of helping people understand, like I said, that it’s not about how great the reading programs are the summer before third grade,” said Ableidinger. 

The early childhood leaders said correct messaging and framing of the conversation is what proves to make change. Joy Bivens, director of Franklin County Department of Job and Family Services in Ohio, said leading the effort, starting in 2011, to create a star-rating system for early childhood centers meant starting the conversation with whatever you could to get different people from different backgrounds on board. 

“I understood it from the perspective of, I needed to get people to care, not because of their perspective on politics or whatever, but because 23,000 kids need care, 68% of those kids are kids of color who live in the eight lowest-asset neighborhoods in our county. So when I went to the business community, I didn’t talk about that perspective, I talked about, your future workforce is being impacted because these children may not be able to get dropped off, and by the way, their parents can’t go to work, so I really need you get in the boat on this.”

A specific example of strategic framing was shown in Oppenheimer’s legislative pushes at Idaho’s state legislature. The early childhood advocacy community, she said, was upset that the legislation Oppenheimer’s association backed was a compromise. One piece of the legislation focused on in-home parent involvement, which was legislators’ top priority, and the other on out-of-home child care and early education services, backed by early childhood advocates. 

“We have to understand that we have to make these compromises,” she said. “And so it’s been a really big challenge with our early childhood field.”

Ableidinger said NCECF has started to make its advocacy priorities based on racial equity, a conversation she said is needed no matter the political climate. Bivens shared her experience bringing race into conversations around who lacked access to child care and why. She said she was often met with defensiveness or claims that she was bringing race into things because of her own identity as a black woman. 

“One gentleman thought, ‘Are you implying that we’re racist?’ I said, ‘No, I’m implying that the system has perpetuated in a way where we have locked people out and we have to create policies that are equitable for everyone, and we all want the same thing.’ We’re not that different. We bleed red blood.”

A nosedive in early childhood workforce

A new articulation agreement between the community college system and 12 UNC-system universities smooths transitions for students working towards their B-K (birth to kindergarten) licenses or other early childhood non-licensure degrees. In a breakout session Wednesday, Lisa Eads, the community college system’s director of academic programs, outlined the new agreement and different career pathways for individuals interested in the early childhood field.

The need for more early childhood workers and educators is dire, Eads said. In the last 10 years, the community college system has lost around 100 students enrolled in its associate program in early childhood education per year. 

“When you look at that on a chart, we’re not just declining slightly, we’re nosediving,” Eads said. “When I talk to the data folks at the system office where I work … they tell me that we’re trending downward more quickly than any other degree program in the system.”

The Early Childhood Articulation Agreement (ECAA), first implemented in the fall of 2018, allows community college students to transfer 60 credits within the 64 to 75 credits required for the early childhood education associate’s degree to participating four-year UNC institutions, meaning the students will show up with “junior status.” Community college students must earn a C or better in all transferable courses and hold an overall GPA of at least a 2.0.

The following institutions are participating in the articulation agreement and offer the B-K licensure option:

  • Appalachian State University
  • East Carolina University
  • Elizabeth City State University
  • Fayetteville State University
  • North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University
  • North Carolina Central University
  • University of North Carolina at Charlotte
  • University of North Carolina at Greensboro
  • University of North Carolina at Pembroke
  • University of North Carolina at Wilmington
  • Western Carolina University
  • Winston-Salem State University

And the following four-year institutions offer non-licensure early childhood bachelor’s degrees:

  • East Carolina University: Family and Community Services, Child Development Concentration
  • Elizabeth City State University: Child, Family and Community
  • Fayetteville State University: Birth-Kindergarten Non-Teaching
  • North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University: Child Development and Family Studies
  • North Carolina Central University: Family Consumer Sciences, Child Development and Family Relations Concentration
  • University of North Carolina at Greensboro: Early Care and Education
  • Western Carolina University: Early Childhood
  • Winston-Salem State University: Early Intervention and Preschool Concentration or Business Optional Concentration

The needs for more workers in the early childhood workforce, Eads said, are plenty. Many in the field are reaching retirement age, younger individuals are not choosing the field, and, one of Eads’s slides reads, “there is a misconception that all jobs in early childhood education are low-paying or that all jobs in the field are in child care locations.”

“Creating a seamless educational pathway between systems (high school — college — career) can meet the workforce needs while saving students time and money,” the slide continues. Eads shared that the North Carolina Department of Commerce predicts vacancies both in preschool and kindergarten classes for those working directly with children and for positions that do not require a teaching license. Eads gave several examples of those job opportunities, including Smart Start, the Division of Child Development and Early Education, and Child Care Resource and Referral. 

Eads also gave career pathway options starting in high school with dual enrollment opportunities through the state’s Career and College Promise program, which allows high schoolers to take college courses for free. Below is an example of a transfer pathway from high school to community college to university.

Eads stressed that there are plenty of factors hurting the workforce pipeline that an articulation agreement does not address. For the 2017-2018 school year, the average annual salary for early childhood lead teachers in public settings was $35,000. For lead early childhood teachers in private settings, the annual average salary was $24,510. 

“Compensation is an issue that we can’t forget,” she said. “The best transfer agreement doesn’t necessarily help someone make more money to make a better living. That’s a separate component that our state is going to have to tackle.”

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.