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NC's early learning network has shrunk

Drops in enrollment, sites, staff

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Liz Bell/EducationNC

Early childhood folks at the local and state level know information can be hard to come by. A new dashboard from the Department of Health and Human Services provides both county-level and statewide recent information on early childhood programs. I played around on the dashboard this week to see what stuck out to me. These were my main takeaways:

  1. Fewer sites: The number of early childhood programs fell by 10% from January 2018 to November 2021. Much of that drop is due to a 30% decrease in home-based child care. Learn about this national trend in this recent Hechinger Report piece on rural families’ needs and this piece I wrote on North Carolina context from 2020.
  2. Pandemic drops: Though the number of sites has fallen since 2018, the pandemic did not seem to make much of a difference. The state saw bigger pandemic drops in enrollment (14% from March 2020 to November 2021) and the number of staff (10% in the same time period).
  3. Less public-funded access: Two main public funding sources for early learning, the child care subsidy program and NC Pre-K, reached fewer children in 2021 than in 2018, with 14% fewer children being served through subsidized care and 29% fewer children enrolled in NC Pre-K. The NC Pre-K drop is a result of the pandemic, the dashboard says. The 2021-22 enrollment is back to 82% of pre-pandemic levels.

You can search by county to find how many early learning programs are in your community, how that relates to the area’s child population, as well as the types of programs they are (school-based, centers, in-home, etc.) and their quality ratings.

Let me know: What questions does this raise for you about local and statewide access for children and families? I’d love to hear your questions and story ideas.

Early Bird reads: What we’re writing

NC early care and education by the numbers: Fewer children, sites, staff in recent years

The pandemic has placed hurdles in the early learning network — for providers, teachers, and families — and exposed pre-existing issues of access, equity, and quality.

The dashboard provides a starting point for consideration of important decisions on those issues, said Ariel Ford, director of DHHS’s Division of Child Development and Early Education, in a news release.

“While we regularly collect and monitor network data, it is our hope that making this powerful tool more accessible to the public will further enable equitable decision-making in every community and at the state level,” Ford said.

Durham literacy organization Book Harvest looks to expand

Book Harvest, a Durham-based nonprofit focused on book distribution and early childhood literacy, is looking to expand past its home turf.

Over the past 10 years, the organization has given 1.6 million books to children and launched several initiatives, including Book Babies, a literacy-focused home visiting program for children’s first five years. It is now planning to reach other communities across North Carolina and beyond.

In other early learning news: What I’m reading

Research & Resources: Let's talk pre-K research

A Tennessee study has been making the rounds in the early childhood policy and research communities. I’ve also had people outside of those communities ask me about the study and its implications for pre-K everywhere.

The longitudinal study’s most recent findings found negative outcomes for low-income children by the end of sixth grade who attended Tennessee’s voluntary pre-K program in the 2009-10 or 2010-11 school years: lower test scores, more special education placements, and more behavior issues than their low-income peers who did not attend the program.

There are many research studies that have found the opposite: positive impacts for children, particularly low-income children. There have been some studies that find academic benefits fade later in school, and others that show benefits into adulthood.

“There is a tendency sometimes to cover research like this as if it is either the first information we have about the question or as if it is inherently better because it’s new,” writes Emily Oster in her parenting newsletter I read religiously. “Neither is necessarily true, so it’s always useful to step back and ask what the context is.”

You can find even more context in this helpful Hechinger Report piece by early childhood reporter Jackie Mader. Mader brings up the program’s fluctuating quality, low funding, and the balance between academic and play-based environments. She also quotes Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (which evaluates public pre-K programs across the country).

Barnett cautioned against generalizing the effects to programs elsewhere, and pointed to other factors besides pre-K that impact children’s development: “I think it’s not logical to attribute the outcomes to the preschool program alone, as opposed to some kind of interaction between preschool and K-12,” he said.

This is not to say we should dismiss the findings, as Mader’s piece mentions at its end. There are important questions to further research from the findings to inform important policy decisions with important impacts on children.

But parents, Oster’s main audience, shouldn’t worry, she says.

“… It would be a big mistake to take the results from this study and apply them in an uncritical way to your own choices,” she writes. “At best, we learn from it that not all pre-K programs yield positive results on all dimensions. So there’s value in thinking carefully about the program you choose. But that value was there before, and it would be there even if this particular study had shown something different.”

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.