NC pre-school not meeting enrollment needs

NC pre-school not meeting enrollment needs

(N.C.) North Carolina’s preschool program has regularly been shown to produce long-term benefits, but more than half of children eligible for NC Pre-K are unable to enroll due to inadequate state funding, according to new research.

The National Institute for Early Education Research found that despite efforts made in recent years by lawmakers to increase the number of available pre-K slots, 53 percent of at-risk and eligible children simply don’t have access.

“We applaud North Carolina for supporting a high-quality program and urge the state to provide more young children the chance to benefit from NC Pre-K,” said Steven Barnett, founder of NIEER and author of the report, in a statement. “Our recommendations today for modifying the current funding structure are designed to address financial realities and barriers to expansion.”

Research has shown that participation in high-quality childcare or pre-K programs can have a number of positive benefits for children. In some studies, children enrolled in early learning childcare have demonstrated increased levels of academic achievement, cognitive and social-emotional development, and are better able to adjust to different social environments than their peers.

Others have found that children who participate for two years in high-quality preschool programs are less likely to come into contact with the juvenile justice system, and require academic remediation or special education services.

On the other hand, participation in average or low-quality programs has been shown to have short-lived benefits or none at all.

The NC Pre-K program–introduced in 2001 to provide at-risk 4-year-olds primarily from low-income families with high-quality educational opportunities during the year prior to kindergarten–has a strong record of demonstrating quality and long-term effectiveness.

Longitudinal research over 14 years with almost 1 million children conducted at Duke University found NC Pre-K boosted math and reading test scores and reduced special education placements and grade repetition through the end of primary school.

And University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studies have found that the state’s program raises children’s literacy, math and social-emotional skills at school entry, as well as reading and math test scores for low-income children through third grade.

The problem, Barnett found, is that NC Pre-K is reaching less than half the children it was designed to serve–largely due to inadequate funding.

Slightly more than 29,500 children are currently enrolled in the program, while almost 33,000 children who are income-eligible for NC Pre-K lack access, researchers at the National Institute for Early Education Research found.

Only about one-quarter of counties are serving at least 75 percent of their eligible children, but the vast majority of North Carolina’s 100 counties are not reaching that level of enrollment. There are 40 counties currently serving less than half of eligible students.

The study found a number of issues related to county wait lists and a lack of capacity to serve the number of eligible families seeking to enroll their children.

Specifically, researchers noted that “waiting lists” are not an accurate measure of either need or demand for NC Pre-K, and that as funding for NC Pre-K has increased, so has demand that cannot be met–far exceeding the number of children on any waiting lists.

Additionally, the report found that the term “waiting lists” as it’s used in state budget language actually refers to county capacity to enroll more children–not an actual list of children seeking to enroll. And counties are not required to maintain actual waiting lists, nor are there consistent statewide policies related to creating such lists.

Meanwhile, expanding NC Pre-K is hindered by the fact that revenues and other resources available to NC Pre-K providers are too often inadequate to cover the costs of expansion, according to researchers.

For instance, stagnant state reimbursement rates since 2012 fail to cover NC Pre-K costs, including operating costs relating to recruiting and retaining qualified teachers, expanding facilities and providing transportation, they concluded.

Following years of spending cuts during and after the recession, state lawmakers have taken efforts in recent years to expand the benefits of NC Pre-K to more children. The biennial 2017-19 budget included a $27.3 million increase in funding for the program in order to enroll more than 3,500 additional children. Total funding for NC Pre-K increased to $154.5 million in Fiscal Year 2017-18, and to $163.8 million for Fiscal Year 2018-19.

Barnett called on policymakers to modify the current NC Pre-K funding structure to allow for more effective use of state funding to expand access. Recommendations included:

  • Developing targets for expansion to reach at least 75 percent of eligible children statewide, with particular attention to underserved populations and counties where NC Pre-K services are least available;
  • Increasing reimbursement rates to account for rising costs and addressing specific barriers to expansion, including startup costs;
  • Offering financial incentives for four- and five-star private centers, already providing pre-K for 4-year-olds, to meet the higher-quality standards to become NC Pre-K sites, thereby allowing them to receive state funding; and
  • Providing supplemental funds for NC Pre-K teacher compensation to achieve parity between private centers and public schools.

He also said the state should consider shifting NC Pre-K funding into the public-school funding formula in such a way that all children served can be jointly funded by state, local and federal dollars.

“These recommended modifications to North Carolina’s NC Pre-K funding structure should allow significantly more eligible children to access the program, laying solid foundations for their future success in school and beyond,” Barnett wrote.

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