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Early Bird

Learning lessons from the Forsyth pre-K effort

'State issues that have tremendous local implications'

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Kaiden Richardson, a pre-K student at Church Child Care Center in Forsyth County, completes a puzzle. Liz Bell/EducationNC

I’ve been talking with educators, advocates, parents, and community leaders in Forsyth County since April about their effort to establish universal pre-K. It’s a local story that has lessons for communities across the state with a similar goal — as well as for state leaders making choices about early childhood policy and funding.

For seven years, a coalition of local early learning organizations called The Pre-K Priority has been looking inside and outside their community for best practices to expand pre-K and educating people about its importance. With a new task force, parent voices, and cross-sector partners, the same people who have been on board since 2014 are hoping the community can reach a shared vision over the next year.

“We don’t need to convince people that pre-K is important,” said Don Martin, chair of the task force, a county commissioner in his second term, and former superintendent of the school district. “We need to figure out, you know, what does it look like? Where’s it gonna be? I mean, we got to get down to some operationalizing.”

Their journey to this point has revealed the importance of parent and community representation, the complexity of pre-K, and how statewide inequities affect pre-K access.

“These are state issues that have tremendous local implications,” said Bob Feikema, president and CEO of Family Services, a nonprofit organization that administers the county’s Head Start program.

I’m excited to tell this story — click here for the first piece on the group’s seven-year journey and here for the second piece on the inequities the effort has highlighted — and to watch the group’s discussions continue to evolve. Respond to this email with any questions and consider sharing the two articles with your early childhood network.

Below, don’t miss updates from the state Senate’s budget proposal and the early childhood legislative task force. Thank you for reading and engaging.


Early years at the GA: Updates from the legislature

The Senate released its budget proposal last week, which includes a few main early childhood items:

  • $15 million in nonrecurring funds in each year of the biennium for Smart Start, the statewide network of local partnerships that administer early childhood funds and services to serve their communities. This includes (for 2021 and 2022 each) $10 million for child care activities, $4 million for family support activities, and $1 million for health-related activities.
  • $5.2 million over the biennium in recurring funds to increase the NC Pre-K reimbursement rates that child care centers receive, as well as $20 million nonrecurring for capital and start-up costs related to NC Pre-K.
  • $503 million to reduce the child care subsidy waitlist, prioritizing children in foster care; to continue to cover parent co-pays for the rest of this year; and to award staff bonuses based on the amount of time a teacher has worked at the facility. These are federal funds from the American Rescue Plan (ARP), which includes $1.3 billion in child care investments.

Meanwhile, Susan Perry, chief deputy secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, updated the bicameral early childhood legislative caucus on the state of the early care and education field. Child care enrollment is hovering at 70% of pre-pandemic levels, and the reasons are unclear so far. Some parents might have more flexible work arrangements, some might not be able to afford care, and some might have not returned to the workforce yet, Perry said.

Since child care centers rely heavily on parent fees, many providers are struggling to stay open. Perry said $805 million of the ARP relief funds are federally required to go to stabilization grants, which providers will have to apply for.

“Obviously, we’re not out of the woods yet,” said David Willis, R-Union, who owns a private child care center in Charlotte. “As you showed, the number of students who have returned is still well below where we were. And a lot of businesses are still treading water.”

Another $503 million in ARP funds is more flexible; that’s the tranche the Senate is proposing to use to expand subsidy assistance.

The subsidy waitlist is at 19,000 children and is growing, Perry said. More than 90% of children on subsidy have now returned to their child care arrangements. The department would like to see an increase in the rates providers receive to serve children on subsidy, Perry said. She said using the nonrecurring federal funds to serve more children could lead to problems down the road since federal law requires states to continue funding children until they age out (at 12 years old) or until their family no longer needs the assistance.


Early Bird reads: What we’re writing

A local pre-K effort reaches wide before marching on

As the state and country grapple with early education proposals, Forsyth County joins a long list of localities laying the groundwork for change and tackling the problems young children and families in their communities face. But the story leading up to that meeting is unique to its place and people.

Push for pre-K in Forsyth County reveals statewide inequities

Years of looking within and outside of the community have revealed several lessons and challenges for pre-K expansion:

  • Information is hard to come by. The fragmented nature of early education has been a challenge for advocates trying to get a clear picture of where young children in their community are.
  • The local landscape is complex. Access and quality issues have surfaced from studies by Forsyth Futures and the Pre-K Priority.
  • Resources and access vary greatly across the state. Both when it comes to the NC Pre-K and the child care subsidy program, advocates were surprised by the state’s unequal distribution of funds.
  • To local leaders, a mixed delivery system is an asset. The task force is committed to strengthening the entire early education landscape and providing various choices in pre-K settings for families.

Child care enrollment is hovering at 70%. The reasons are complicated

“We’ve been slowly inching up,” Perry said in a presentation to the bicameral early childhood legislative caucus on the early education landscape and the funds available to support it. “We haven’t seen it move a lot in the last couple of months.”

As parents re-enter the workforce, some parents’ jobs become more flexible, and programs struggle to find teachers, she said, the early care and education system’s future is uncertain.


Your take, for goodness sake: EdNC perspectives

Perspective | Five ways to eliminate lead from water in schools and child care centers

Vikki Krouse, a policy analyst from NC Child, and Jennifer Hoponick Redmon, a senior environmental health scientist at RTI International, outline ways to strengthen an update on the federal Lead and Copper Rule, which regulates the concentration of lead and copper allowed in public tap water — including in schools and child care centers.


In other early learning news: What I’m reading


Research & Resources: Let's talk early childhood webinars

As the state decides how to spend federal early childhood relief dollars, two virtual panels this month provided insights into parent voices and lessons on pre-K implementation.

The Researchers Investigating Sociocultural Equity and Race (RISER) network, a national coalition of researchers, hosted a webinar uplifting the experiences of Black families coming out of the pandemic.

Black families have experienced high levels of economic disruption despite household income level, and have used formal group-based child care less because of a lack of affordability, said Iheoma Iruka, research professor of public policy at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Frank Porter Graham Institute. Find more insights on Black children and families in this February 2021 report from the RISER network.

Panelists pointed to a need for systemic change in supports for Black children and families starting before birth, citing disparities in access to high-quality child care, in health outcomes for Black mothers and infants, and in pay for early educators of color.

Go here for my Twitter coverage.

The same day,  New Jersey early childhood leaders and researchers shared lessons from their pre-K model. Abbot Preschool was developed after a series of court rulings from 1998 to 2002 that established the constitutional right of low-income 3- and 4-year-olds to high-quality preschool.  

The program has had significant positive impacts on children’s academic gains through 10th grade. Leaders said the success of the program has depended on strong partnerships in a variety of settings that work for families: both private and public early childhood programs.

They also said the program, unlike many in other states, is based on the true cost of high-quality care. The state provides consistent funding at about $15,000 per child over two years. Investing in infrastructure is also vital, said Steven Barnett, senior co-director at the National Institute for Early Education Research. 

As states receive federal dollars to invest in early childhood, Barnett said to start with the question: “What do we need to meet the needs of kids to vastly improve their potential, to vastly improve their preparation, their learning and development before they enter kindergarten?”

Go here for my Twitter thread.

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.