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2015 Fiscal Year State Budget, NC Budget and Tax Center

Despite the fact that almost three-quarters of North Carolina voters support expanding NC Pre-K and Smart Start, state lawmakers continued a pattern of underinvestment in key early childhood education services in the state budget they passed this year. NC Pre-K is a proven program which helps prepare children for later success in life, yet lawmakers failed to keep up with the needs of young children in the budget. They provided a one-time $5 million increase for NC Pre-K, but these are not recurring dollars and most of the money goes to increase teacher salaries. While improving teacher pay is critical, there is little left over to provide additional Pre-K slots. This education program currently is not able to serve thousands of children on a waiting list and thousands more who would otherwise be eligible. This is just one example of the many trade-offs state legislators made due to their choice to prioritize tax cuts primarily for those at the top over needed investments in our children, families and workforce.

Child care subsidies, another effective program which helps lower income families afford quality child care and serves as a work support, also took a hit in this year’s budget. Like NC Pre-K, the child care subsidy program helps make sure young children have access to quality early education, and it also has a waiting list of thousands. Lawmakers did little to address the shortage of services and actually made it harder for some low-income families to access this support. They lowered the income eligibility requirements for children under five years old to 200 percent of the federal poverty level (about $39,000 for a family of three). The program used to be available to young children in families earning up to 75 percent of the state median income (about $42,000 for a family of three). The changes were even worse for school-age children using subsidies for after school care. One positive change lawmakers made in this year’s budget was to how much child care providers are reimbursed for serving children who get subsidies, bringing the cost per child closer to the market rate and helping providers recoup more of their expenses. However, providers still are not paid the full market rate, making it hard for many child care settings to accept children who receive subsidies.

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NC Budget and Tax Center, Poverty and Income Data 2013, Poverty and Policy Matters

Children face the highest poverty rate in North Carolina compared to other age groups according to data released last week by the US Census Bureau. After more than five years into an economic recovery, one in four children (25.2%) in North Carolina remained in poverty in 2013 –unchanged from 2012 and higher than the national child poverty rate (22%). At a time when we are experiencing an economic recovery, it is troubling that our state’s child poverty rate is not declining and remains significantly higher than the national average.

The numbers become even more meaningful when considering the disadvantages children in poverty face: less access to early education programs and high quality schools, food insecurity, higher stress levels and higher dropout rates, among other risk factors. Recent findings in brain development research also warn of the impact of toxic stress associated with poverty on a young child’s developing brain. Toxic stress can weaken the architecture of a child’s brain, creating long-term challenges that make it hard for one to be economically secure as an adult. Other numbers are rising for children across the nation and in North Carolina that we certainly don’t want to see on the rise. Infant mortality and child mortality has increased in North Carolina. There has also been a rise in the number of homeless school children, according to recently released national data. Both are indicators of poverty’s tight grasp on America’s and North Carolina’s children.

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Commentary
Bill de Blasio

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio – Image: Official website of the City of New York

In 2014, there are lots of basic public structures and social services that Americans, like the inhabitants in other advanced countries, ought to have a right to take for granted. Paid sick days, paid maternity leave, and free higher education, for example, need to be on any such list.

And here’s another one: free, universal, public pre-Kindergarten.

Fortunately, at least one important American jurisdiction is doing something about it. As this recent New York Times editorial notes, the city of New York kicked off an enormously ambitious program this week to provide public pre-K to 50,000 four-year-olds:

The start of public school on Thursday in New York City should be the usual merry scramble of chattering children and stressed (or relieved) parents. There will also be something new: a fresh crop of 4-year-olds, more than 50,000, embarking on the first day of free, full-day, citywide, city-run prekindergarten.

It’s worth pausing to note what an accomplishment this is. Fifty thousand is a small city’s worth of children, each getting a head start on a lifetime of learning. It is so many families saving the cost of day care or private prekindergarten. It is a milestone of education reform.

The editorial goes on to heap praise on New York mayor Bill de Blasio who made the launch of such a program a key plank in his campaign platform and who now despite plenty of critics — including the Times editorial page — has now made good on his promise.

Let’s hope the program is a rousing success and that, like so many other trends that started in the Big Apple, it catches on all over (even in North Carolina) ASAP.

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DHHS Sec. Aldona Wos

DHHS Sec. Aldona Wos

[Update: This post originally stated that 41,000 children were on the state's waiting list for childcare. Advocates in the childcare advocacy community have since contacted N.C. Policy Watch to let us know that this number, which dated to 2013, has been reduced to the much-lower, but still too-high, figure of approximately 22,000. We regret the error but stand by the premise of the story.] 

A special press release from the office of state Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos provided yet another powerful example today of the disconnect between the policies of the McCrory administration and the reality “on the ground” for struggling North Carolinians.

According to the release, the Secretary will help celebrate the “Week of the Young Child” by reading to children at a Raleigh childcare center.

To which, all a body can say in response is: Uh, pardon us if we don’t start popping champagne corks. No offense Madam Secretary — it’s a nice gesture — but is that really all you got? If it is, you might want to check out today’s edition of the Fitzsimon File in which Chris explains that the waiting list for North Carolina’s  inadequate, but better-than-nothing-if-you’re-poor childcare subsidy program that you oversee has now reached an amazing and depressing 22,000.

In other words, reading to them a handful at a time is your solution for what ails our kids, you had better get busy.

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If you get a chance, check out this Charlotte Observer editorial on the state Supreme Court’s recent ruling on the North Carolina’s still badly inadequate pre-Kindergarten effort. As the editorial notes:

Berger pre-K“We’re a little puzzled by the fist-pumping from Republicans in Raleigh last week after the N.C. Supreme Court tossed out a case involving the legislature and the state’s pre-K program.

The court, in a six-page decision, dismissed an appeal of a 2011 lower-court ruling that said the Republican-led legislature had violated a constitutional mandate by making it harder for at-risk children to participate in pre-K. The court also vacated that lower-court ruling because Republicans undid the two things that landed them in court in the first place – capping pre-K enrollment and initiating a co-pay for some eligible families. Read More