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Perspective | North Carolina: It’s time to invest in our future — by investing in early care and education

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Invest Early NC is an early childhood funders collaborative focused on outcomes for children and families prenatal to age 8 so children are healthy, safe, nurtured, learning, and ready to succeed by the end of 3rd grade.

North Carolina has a proud legacy as a national leader in early childhood development, thanks to visionary bipartisan programs like Smart Start. But that reputation is at risk. Today, parents across North Carolina’s 100 counties face a critical challenge: finding safe, high-quality, and affordable childcare. To meet the needs of families and the demands of our growing economy, we need to renew our commitment to early childhood education.

The challenge: A fragile system on the brink

A robust early education system includes private, faith-based, home-based, and center-based care options for families, but the current system can’t offer families the choices they need. The economics of child care simply don’t work. High-quality care is expensive for families, yet providers struggle to pay their staff a living wage or offer healthcare benefits. Public subsidies don’t fully cover the gap, and federal COVID relief funds that have been keeping this fragile system afloat are set to expire in July. Experts predict a wave of childcare closures, further straining an already insufficient system.

The cost of inaction: Beyond dollars and cents

This isn’t just about money, though the cost of inaction is significant. When families lack access to affordable, high-quality childcare, they face impossible choices. Our state has 19,400 families on the early care and learning subsidy waitlist. Many parents who want to work must instead stay home, hindering their career advancement and economic mobility, and making it harder to support their families. Others cobble together unreliable childcare, which can add daily stress to families’ lives and still not meet their needs. Access to early care and education has a two-generation impact.

The consequences reach beyond individual families. A strong workforce is vital to North Carolina’s economic success. Businesses struggle to find qualified workers when parents can’t access reliable childcare. This hurts our state’s competitiveness and economic potential.

The investment: Building a brighter future

Investing in early childhood education isn’t a cost, it’s an investment — an investment in our children, our families, our workforce, and our future. It’s the ultimate upstream solution for ensuring that every child educated in North Carolina has the opportunity for success in school and beyond. Here’s why:

  • Early Learning Pays Off: Numerous longitudinal, randomized controlled research studies (including the premier Abecedarian Project in Chapel Hill) show that high-quality early childhood programs significantly improve children’s cognitive, social, and emotional development. Since a child’s brain develops more before age five than during any other time of life, children who participate in these programs arrive at kindergarten better prepared to succeed, leading to higher graduation rates and better lifetime earnings.
  • Stronger Workforce, Stronger Economy: Businesses need employees for our state’s economic recovery, but many parents can’t work because they can’t afford early care and learning. Studies have shown that every dollar invested in early childhood education yields a significant societal return on investment — as much as $16 for every $1 invested. By ensuring parents who want to work can access reliable childcare, we create a more stable workforce, boosting productivity and attracting businesses. The North Carolina Chamber of Commerce and Department of Health and Human Services understand this connection and have spoken out about the need for solutions.
  • Breaking the Cycle of Poverty: High-quality early childhood programs can help close the opportunity gap and equip children from disadvantaged backgrounds for success. Nobel economist James Heckman’s decades-long research on early childhood education –popularly known as “The Heckman Equation” for American prosperity — demonstrates a 13% per year economic return on investment based on increased school and career achievement as well as reduced costs in remedial education, health, and criminal justice system expenditures. This breaks the cycle of poverty, leading to a stronger society where every child has the opportunity to flourish.

The evidence is overwhelming: when we invest in the health, education, and development of young children from birth to age five, we reap the biggest returns later in life. More spending on early care and education would save taxpayer money in the long run.

North Carolina can lead again

It’s time for North Carolina to once again take its place at the vanguard of early childhood education, and it’s going to take all of us — a public/private partnership of parents, businesses, government, and philanthropy. Ensuring all children have access to high-quality early learning isn’t about a one-size-fits-all program. It’s about ensuring families have the choices they need when they’re ready to go to work.

Recent polling conducted by the bipartisan research team of New Bridge Strategies and Hart Research found that a vast majority of voters want lawmakers to have a plan around child care, including 89% of all voters; 80% of Republicans; 88% of Independents; and 93% of Democrats.

We are a growing collective of philanthropic leaders committed to ensuring North Carolina’s children arrive at kindergarten healthy, ready for school, and on track to succeed by the end of third grade.

North Carolina’s local and state policymakers share this mission and have taken important steps toward furthering it. We urge our legislators to write North Carolina’s next chapter as a leader in early childhood development through work with childcare providers, educators, and business leaders to develop a sustainable early care and education plan that includes increased public funding for: child and dependent care tax credits to provide tax relief to working-class families; an extension of the North Carolina Child Care Compensation Grants that help childcare small businesses bridge the gap between the cost of care and what families can afford to pay; salary supplements for early childhood educators; a statewide childcare subsidy reimbursement rate floor to support rural and low-income families; matching business contributions to employees’ Dependent Care Flexible Spending Accounts; and strengthening NC PreK and Smart Start.

Conclusion: Building a legacy we can all be proud of

Our state’s policymakers understand the importance of investing in early childhood to ensure that parents can go to work and give their children the best opportunities to grow and develop into the healthy, educated future workforce that North Carolina will need. Let’s build on our legacy of leadership by making early care and education a priority, like Florida, Kentucky, Ohio, and Alabama have. Let’s prioritize our resources to support families, strengthen our workforce, and unlock the full potential of every child in North Carolina. Together, we can build a legacy of opportunity and ensure that every child has the chance to thrive.


Invest Early NC

ChildTrust Foundation

Dogwood Health Trust

HopeStar Foundation

Impact Alamance

John Rex Endowment

Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust

Live Oak Bank

Stephen L. Cornwell Foundation

The Cemala Foundation

The Duke Endowment

The Joseph M. Bryan Foundation of Greater Greensboro

The Leon Levine Foundation

Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation

Editor’s Note: Some of the funders in Invest Early NC fund the work of EdNC.

Invest Early NC

Invest Early NC is an early childhood funders collaborative focused on outcomes for children and families prenatal to age 8 so children are healthy, safe, nurtured, learning, and ready to succeed by the end of 3rd grade.