Commentary, Education, News

Study: North Carolina pre-K expanding, but still lags national average

A new study says North Carolina Pre-K is on the rise, but there’s still a great deal more work to do.

The report should provide new fodder for North Carolina lawmakers, who’ve been debating expanded public access to Pre-K for several years.

From WRAL’s report Wednesday:

North Carolina has increased state preschool funding and enrollment, but access has hovered at 23 percent of 4-year-olds – below the national average, according to new research released Wednesday by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

The State of Preschool 2018 annual report, based on 2017-18 academic year data, found that North Carolina boosted pre-K spending by nearly $6 million in 2017-18, with plans to continue increased funding. However, the state “needs to both expand access and restore funding per child to pre-recession levels to help close the pay gap between pre-K and K-3 teachers with the same qualifications,” the group wrote.

“North Carolina is moving in the right direction,” NIEER founder and senior co-director Steven Barnett said in a statement.

On Tuesday, state lawmakers discussed a possible three-year virtual early learning pilot program called “UpStart” that would give at-risk, preschool-age children access to online pre-K classes at home.

Earlier this year, North Carolina business leaders, including CEOs at Red Hat and SAS, pushed for more slots for students in pre-K.

Across North Carolina, about 30,000 children participate in the NC Pre-K program, which focuses specifically on educating at-risk 4-year-olds. Teachers in the program have to be certified in early reading, a criteria that has been recognized across the country for success, according to SAS CEO Jim Goodnight.

The positive impacts of early childhood education are well-documented, and the under-funded programs might have the potential to decrease achievement gaps as well.

Meanwhile, questions also persist about pay for pre-k educators.

More from WRAL:

Nationally, the group found that just a third of 4-year-olds and 5.5 percent of 3-year-olds are enrolled in public preschool programs, with virtually no change in years. Meanwhile, state funding “is failing to keep pace with even the slow increases in enrollment and state spending per child has decreased, when adjusted for inflation,” the group reported. “Inadequate funding undermines classroom quality, and most states fail to pay pre-K teachers comparably to K-3 teachers.”

Barnett said he is “disappointed by the lack of progress and concerned about the number of children missing the quality early learning experiences.”

This year’s report includes a special section on policies affecting the preschool teacher workforce, focusing on salary and benefit parity.

Enrollment has more than doubled since 2002 – with almost 1.6 million children enrolled nationwide – but expansion has slowed in recent years, according to the report. “In some states, slow growth is due to a shift from part-day to full-day programs, which can better support child development as well as family work schedules, but nevertheless leaves many children unserved.”

For North Carolina’s state profile in the new study, go here.

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