Skip to content

EdNC. Essential education news. Important stories. Your voice.

Governor’s commission discusses role of early childhood in sound basic education

On Wednesday, the Governor’s Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education considered the role that early childhood systems and experiences play in ensuring that North Carolina meets its commitment to providing educational success for every student. The Commission heard from a range of experts on topics including the effects of adverse childhood experiences, funding of early childcare in North Carolina, and aligning early childhood with K-12 systems. 

Brad Wilson, chair of the Commission, said that the topic of early childhood education is part and parcel of the decades-long Leandro case.

When Leslie [Winner] and I had to the opportunity to meet with Judge Manning and hear his perspective, and if you look at some of the rulings he has made, it is clear that from his perspective, he too feels that early childhood education and the early childhood process is inherent in the Leandro question,” said Wilson.

Moving forward, the Commission will break into five subcommittees by topic: finance and resources, led by Jim Deal; teachers, led by Leslie Winner; principals, led by Patrick Miller; early childhood/whole child, led by Henrietta Zalkind; and assessments, led by Melody Chambers.

Wilson emphasized that these subcommittees will drive their own work and can call on outside expertise when needed, including that of WestEd — the consultants assigned to the Leandro case by Judge David Lee. However, this doesn’t mean that the full Commission will cease to exist; rather, according to Wilson, the Commission will shift to the dual role of both “learning and doing” ahead of writing their final report which is due in the spring of 2019.

Each subcommittee is tasked with summarizing the Commission’s preliminary findings on their topic area and crafting possible strategies for consideration of the full Commission. The subcommittee meetings will adhere to all open meeting laws.

The full Commission will meet next on September 13 in Raleigh.


Commission members heard five presentations from experts across the field of early childhood education.

Dr. Katie Rosanbalm from the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University presented information on the impacts of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and trauma on early childhood development.

Rosanbalm urged the Commission members to think about the various ways that adversity negatively impacts students, including both emotionally and physiologically. Numerous commission members noted their desire for training on trauma and ACEs to be included in teacher licensure programs.

Dr. Kelly Maxwell, a senior research scientist with Child Trends, presented on the importance of robust early childhood systems. Maxwell emphasized the important role that development during birth through age 5 plays in the long-term well-being and success of students.

She also urged Commission members to think about ways in which their recommendations could connect to the realm of early childhood, noting the benefits of cross-cutting policies such as expanding access to affordable health insurance for children and families.

“A recommendation to help schools better connect families to health helps everyone, including the babies and the 4-year-olds. You can think strategically about recommendations that might have a ripple effect,” said Maxwell.

Susan Perry-Manning from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NC DHHS) presented information about how early childhood education is funded across the state.

She began by tracing the history of how early childhood education has been connected to the Leandro litigation.

A slide from Perry-Manning’s presentation shows a timeline of connections between the Leandro case and early childhood. Credit: Susan Perry-Manning/NC DHHS.

Then, Perry-Manning discussed which entities administer the array of public early learning services in North Carolina:

  • NC DHHS: Child care subsidy, child care programs, Smart Start, NC Pre-K, NC Infant and Toddler Program
  • North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI): Preschool for Exceptional Children
  • Federal government: Early Head Start, Head Start

Perry-Manning discussed how the shortage of qualified teachers and available classrooms often prevent the NC Pre-K program from expanding, despite many areas with long waiting lists.

A slide from Perry-Manning’s presentation shows the percent of eligible North Carolina children served by an array of early childhood education programs. Credit: Susan Perry-Manning/NC DHHS


We are not bringing enough teachers into the pipeline to meet the growing demand. We do not have enough classrooms that are able to or willing to meet the standards,” said Perry-Manning. “This is disproportionately impacting low wealth and rural communities in the state.”

Cindy Watkins, president of the North Carolina Partnership for Children, presented on early childhood system building at the local level.

Watkins discussed outcomes of the whole child approach and the details of how Smart Start is funded.

John Pruette, executive director of the Office of Early Learning at NC DPI, presented on aligning early childhood systems with K-12 systems.

Pruette emphasized the components of a strong birth through 3rd grade continuum, noting opportunities to strengthen early childhood education preemptively rather than focusing on remediation later on.

“Frankly, there is evidence that the quality of elementary classrooms can and should be strengthened. Education reform in K-3 hasn’t received a lot of attention, but lately we have seen a lot of attention specific to literacy and math development,” said Pruette. “I would suggest that those types of laws could be an opportunity to think about how you make critical reform to that piece of the educational continuum in a way that supports children.”

Tracy Zimmerman, executive director of the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation, shared information about the NC Pathways to Grade-Level Reading initiative. 

Zimmerman opened by explaining that the initiative was created to address a major challenge facing the state: the majority of North Carolina’s children are not reading proficiently by the end of 3rd grade.

“This is our vision: Everyone in our state who is doing work to benefit young children birth through 8 and their families — whether they come from health, or family support, or education — are doing so in a way that is aligned, that they are striving towards the same outcomes, that they’re all moving in the same director, and recognize that early literacy is rooted in birth through 8 child development,” said Zimmerman.

“To us, early literacy is proxy for child well-being.”

Wilson closed the meeting with metaphor, saying that the “puck” is accelerating down a course as the Commission continues their work.

With all the challenges that we are learning about, and have since we began our work, we’re skating a little faster and a little more effectively, but the question is: Are we skating fast enough, and again, what is the ultimate definition of success?”

Editor’s Note: Judge David Lee is the father of Laura Lee, EdNC’s managing editor and content director. Mebane Rash edited this article.

Analisa Sorrells

Analisa Sorrells is a Master in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School and previously worked as chief of staff and associate director of policy for EducationNC.