Skip to content

North Carolina ranks middle of the road in preschool access, quality compared to other states

The quality of North Carolina’s state-funded preschool, NC Pre-K, ranked in the middle of the pack when compared with other states in a new report by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), housed within Rutgers University.

Officially released today, the annual yearbook looks at states’ public preschool programs — how much states spend per child and the reach and quality of those programs. When it comes to funding, North Carolina’s program ranked 20 in state spending and 10 in overall spending when compared to 50 states and Washington, D.C. 

State funding covers about 60% of the cost of NC Pre-K. The rest of the cost is funded with a blend of federal and local funds. Find more on the cost of NC Pre-K and who covers it here from the NC Early Childhood Foundation. According to the report, the state spent $5,428 per child enrolled in 2018, down slightly from $5,490 in 2017. 

Steven Barnett, NIEER’s senior co-director, said North Carolina’s preschool program has had research studying its effectiveness since inception.

“North Carolina has a program that’s had a long history of excellence. It’s got solid research data behind it,” Barnett said in an Education Writer’s Association webinar in response to a question from EducationNC.

But Barnett said he is concerned that state allocations are not sufficient to maintain the quality of the program. 

“They haven’t changed the standards but you have less money to meet them,” Barnett said. “That’s a problem.”

He said the gap between compensation for public elementary school teachers and pre-K teachers in North Carolina is worrisome. According to the report, in public preschool settings, pre-K teachers make an average of $15,861 less than elementary school teachers. In private settings, pre-K teachers make an average of $26,351 less than elementary school teachers. Some NC Pre-K slots are within private settings. The average salary in 2018 for lead pre-K teachers was $35,000 in public settings and $24,510 in private settings. For public elementary school teachers, the average salary was $50,861.

North Carolina ranked 27th in preschool access for 4-year-olds. NC Pre-K enrolled 1,366 new children in 2018, increasing the total number of 4-year-olds enrolled to 28,385, or 23% of the state’s total 4-year-old population. One hundred percent of the 115 school districts across the state offer the program. A separate report by NIEER released in January on barriers to NC Pre-K expansion found that the program was reaching 47% of the state’s eligible 4-year-olds. The program prioritizes low-income children for eligibility and considers several other factors like limited English proficiency and special needs. 

Barnett said disparities in access across the state stuck out to him in North Carolina.

“So if you go county by county in North Carolina, some counties barely serve 15% of the eligible kids and some counties serve more than 85% of eligible kids,” he said. “Those are huge differences.”

When it comes to quality, the report looks at 10 benchmarks Barnett said are research-backed minimums for programs. North Carolina met eight out of the 10 benchmarks.

“These are minimums,” he said. “These are what we think research says, if you’ve got all 10 of these you can get in the game. We’re worried about you if you don’t. If you meet less than half of these, there’s real cause for worry.”

The benchmarks include policies around standards, curriculum, workforce supports and qualifications, and class size. The two benchmarks North Carolina does not meet are the requirement of a CDA (Child Development Associate Credential) for pre-K teacher assistants and specific professional development requirements for teachers and assistants, including 15 hours a year, individual plans, and coaching. See below for the entire list of quality benchmarks. 

From the National Institute for Educational Research’s State of Preschool 2018 Yearbook
Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.