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State preschool program maintains quality, suffers funding cuts

North Carolina was chosen as one of four states in a study on early education released last week. The Learning Policy Institute report paints the picture of a program that was innovative from its inception, has provided quality programs to at-risk children since, and is struggling to grow with limited funding.

The report came out June 29 and details the pre-K programs in North Carolina, Michigan, West Virginia, and Washington. The four states were picked for their “promising practices” in three areas: quality, scale, and diversity.

The institute highlighted the commonalities that they thought made the four early education programs successful but also outlined specifics of each.

Though state governments across the nation have begun prioritizing early education — with $7 billion poured into preschool nationwide during the 2015-16 fiscal year alone — they have all done so with different strategies and priorities.

North Carolina’s statewide pre-K started in 2001 — originally called More at Four and later NC Pre-K. But before that, back in 1993, a public-private partnership called Smart Start began “to assess community needs and coordinate early education services.”

The Smart Start foundation, according to the report, allowed the public preschool to be smoothly integrated into existing childhood services from the beginning.

Today, NC Pre-K serves about 30,000 4-year-olds — or 22 percent of all 4-year-olds in the state. It’s a targeted program for at-risk North Carolina children. The biggest “at-risk” qualifier is financial. If the student’s family earns 75 percent or less of the state median income, that student is eligible to enroll. Eighty percent of the state’s pre-k slots are reserved for low-income students.

The other 20 percent covers children who are at-risk for other reasons — including if the student has a disability, has parents who are active in the military, or is an English language learner.

There are thousands of eligible children across the state on waitlists. Only 35 percent of at-risk 4-year-olds attend state-funded preschool in North Carolina.


One thing that the report highlighted as unique to North Carolina’s preschool program is its system for evaluating and improving the program.

The state is one of only a few where the child care licensing system and the quality rating and improvement system are fully integrated. This means that all early childhood programs are rated on program quality, instead of being able to opt in.

The state offers subsidies and technical assistance for program improvement. In the rating system, points are awarded for program standards, education standards, and quality bonus — for going “above and beyond.”

After six months, all child care providers must maintain three out of five stars, and all NC Pre-K providers must maintain four or five stars.

Tying financial incentives to the program rating has been effective. The quality of the programs has increased greatly and continues to do so. The percentage of providers with four or five stars has increased from 30 percent in 2003 to 66 percent in 2015.

In addition to the star-requirement, preschool providers must also follow even more strict standards under the NC Pre-K Requirements and Guidance. Since 2005, the NC Pre-K program has fulfilled all 10 of the program quality standards established by the National Institute for Early Education Research.

An essential component of that quality classroom experience is who is at the front of it. All NC Pre-K teachers in both public and private programs must have a B.A. in early education or child development, as well as a birth-through-kindergarten teaching license. The report suggests that the same be required for child care providers.

North Carolina’s preschool program has also been researched extensively thanks to its partnership with the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, which has been there to evaluate and recommend improvements to the program since its start in 2001. 


There are certain things the Evaluation of NC Pre-Kindergarten Program at Frank Porter Graham studies every year — like classroom quality, child outcomes, program services, and basic administrative data.

Ellen Peisner-Feinberg, the principal investigator of the team, said in an interview with EducationNC that working on the program since its start has been beneficial for many reasons.

“We’ve been able to look at how the program’s changed over time, or not changed over time,” Peisner-Feinberg said. She added that they’ve been able to check — as the program has grown — if the quality, outcomes, and practices have been maintained.

They’ve published other studies focused on specific trends and issues over the last 15 years. Peisner-Feinberg said they “work closely with the agency (the Division of Child Development and Early Education) to see what kinds of questions they’re interested in addressing.”

Overall, Peisner-Feinberg’s team found NC Pre-K participants made greater gains than would be expected for normal developmental growth.

In a separate study of two groups of children who attended NC Pre-K, they found a smaller gap in the average third grade reading and math test scores between low-income children and their peers who did not qualify for free-or-reduced-price meals. About 90 percent of the children who attend NC Pre-K do qualify for free-or-reduced-price meals.

One “really important finding,” said Peisner-Feinberg, came from looking at students’ language proficiency. The team found that children who have lower levels of English-speaking abilities benefit the most from the program in tons of different skill areas.

“For children who are actually dual-language learners, particularly Spanish speakers, what we’re seeing is that there’s some real benefit to the skills that they have in their home language as well,” Peisner-Feinberg said. “So they’re making gains in English and in Spanish, even though the language of instruction in classrooms is English.”

She said this highlights the importance of supporting children’s growth and development in a student’s home language as well as in English.

Duke University has also participated in research on the state’s preschool program and its impacts. They found that Smart Start and NC Pre-K together reduced the chances of third grade special education placement by 39 percent.

Looking forward, Peisner-Feinberg said her team is planning a study to look at practices of local providers when it comes to how they are making decisions around enrollment and waitlists.


Unlike the other three programs in the report, NC Pre-K has suffered cuts to funding in the last few years.

In the 2008-09 school year, funding — from both state appropriations and lottery receipts — peaked at over $180 million. That year, NC Pre-K served over 34,800 children.

By the 2015-16 school year, funding had dropped to about $140 million and the program served about 27,000 children.

The decline in funding, even as research widely supports the program’s benefits confuses Matt Ellinwood, the director of the Education & Law Project at the N.C. Justice Center.

Ellinwood has been researching preschool programs in North Carolina and elsewhere and looks for ways to promote policy that supports early education access, specifically for low-income children.

“It makes all the sense in the world to start loading all the resources we have in the earliest years when we’re going to get that highest return on investment,” Ellinwood said.

He added that, even though the state’s funding has not returned to pre-recession levels, much more than that is needed to be competitive with other states.

“That’s setting the bar too low,” Ellinwood said. “Other states have added over this period, and so if we only get back to where we were, we won’t really be back to where we were, we’ll actually be further behind than the other states that have had a larger commitment to this.”

Ellinwood said that the international context shouldn’t be forgotten either. The concern of falling behind in education compared to other countries, Ellinwood said, starts with preschool.

The report noted an increased burden on local NC Pre-K and Smart Start partnerships as state funding has decreased. One of the lessons the researchers learned from North Carolina is to “harness local support to increase engagement with early education initiatives and to protect against funding reductions when political priorities change.”

“North Carolina,” the report states a few sentences later, “also offers precautionary lessons about how early learning may become destabilized when it gets caught up in partisan politics.”

A 2014 poll by Public Opinion Strategies and Hart Research Associates found that the majority of N.C. voters with each political affiliation (Democrat, Republican, and Independent) supported investments in early childhood education. Voters who were surveyed prioritized “making sure children get a strong start in life so they perform better in school and succeed in their careers” over any other goal for the state, including the economy.

Ellinwood said that although it doesn’t seem likely in the near future, once the legislature catches on, the bipartisan support and research-backed benefits to the participants could lead to a rapid expansion of the program.

“It’s really, to me, the crown jewel of our entire system,” he said. “We’d be wise to grow that. It’s the best thing we’ve got going. I think we should hang our hat on that, and grow it.”

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.