This blog post is the first in a series exploring myFuture NC’s statewide dashboard indicators, which span the educational continuum. For week 1, we’ll be going in depth on NC Prekindergarten (NC Pre-K) enrollment. Although we provide detailed information on NC, data on enrollment in Pre-K is not available nationally, and therefore we cannot compare NC’s enrollment rates to other states.
Research has established that the first several years of a child’s life are critically important: during this time, a child experiences significant brain growth, which impacts social, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral development. Early experiences (i.e., relationships and interactions with people and environments) can either support healthy growth and development or potentially have the opposite effect. For this reason, researchers, policymakers, and funders are have made significant investments in these formative years. According to one study, there is a $2 to $4 return for every $1 invested in early childhood programs.
One of these investments is the North Carolina Pre-K program. Originally called More at Four, it is an initiative developed to target at-risk 4-year-olds with the goal of preparing them to enter school. Specifically, NC Pre-K provides a high-quality educational program for at-risk children in the year before kindergarten entry. The program focuses on several critical developmental domains, including play and learning and health and physical development. Locations for NC Pre-K vary depending on county; sites include public schools, private for-profit and non-profit childcare centers, and Head Start programs.
NC Pre-K is funded primarily by the state, with the remainder falling to the counties. Specifically, the state funds NC Pre-K at approximately $154 million annually, which is 60% of the cost. A variety of sources are used to cover the remainder, including Smart Start, Title 1 funding from federal sources, donations, and infrastructure/administration (i.e., using classrooms, resources, or administration in already existing childcare centers or public schools) from larger organizations.
The overall cost for a slot in the NC Pre-K program was $9,126, with state funding covering approximately $5,534 (61%), according to a 2017 study by the Center for Urban Affairs and Community Services at North Carolina State University. Funding for NC Pre-K will increase over the next seven years, as the state will receive over $40 million from a Preschool Development Grant from DHHS and $16 million from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Also, the state is working to align investments in the early childhood landscape through a common strategy and plan – the NC Early Childhood Action Plan. According to this plan, by 2025, the percentage of income-eligible children enrolled in NC Pre-K will increase statewide from 47% to 75%. MyFutureNC adopted the NC Early Childhood Action Plan’s target and both the statewide dashboard and individual county profiles reflect this goal. Specifically, for the county profiles, we provide information on exactly how many eligible children will need to enroll in order to have a county-wide Pre-K enrollment rate of 75%.
Several comprehensive research studies have documented the protective effects of the NC Pre-K program. A 2019 study from Duke found that participation in the NC Pre-K program, in combination with the Smart Start program, was associated with significantly increased Math and Reading scores from Grades 3 to 8, as well as a significantly reduced likelihood of receiving special education services or repeating a grade since Grade 3. In addition, UNC’s Frank Porter Graham (FPG) Child Development Institute has conducted evaluations of this program since its inception in the 2001-2002 school year. The most recent study (2017-2018) indicated that children who complete NC Pre-K have stronger language and literacy skills than those who did not participate.
Children are eligible for NC Pre-K if they are from a family whose gross income is at or below 75% of the State Median Income (SMI), which was $52,500 for a family of four for Pre-K eligibility in 2018-19. Children from active duty or certain other military families are eligible for NC Pre-K regardless of income. Also, up to 20% of age-eligible children enrolled may have family incomes exceeding 75% of SMI if they meet other criteria, such as having developmental disabilities, Limited English Proficiency, an educational need, or a chronic health condition. According to the statewide education dashboard, during the 2018-19 school year, 26,780 children—approximately 48% of North Carolina’s 4-year-olds from lower-income families—were enrolled in the NC Pre-K program. This means that 52% of income-eligible 4-year-olds did not have a spot in the program in 2018-19. Overall, the total number of children served in the past five years is trending upwards, though it is down substantially from its 2009 service year, when enrollments peaked at 33,. Limited state funding has been one reason for fewer spots; in FY2008-2009, funding for Pre-K totaled $196 million and by FY2016-2017, funding had declined to $143 million. Funding has been rising annually though, increasing from $154.5 million in FY2017-18 to $163.8 million in FY2018-19. However, even as funding has expanded, not all counties are able to take advantage of the available funds. In 2017 and 2018, NC Pre-K expansion funds were made available to counties and over these two years, 28 counties rejected the funds. While 12 of these counties are serving more than 75% of eligible children, there are almost 5,000 unserved children residing in the other 16 counties which are NOT meeting the 75% target.
According to research by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) and Rutgers University, counties declined the funding due to Pre-K’s funding structure. Specifically, the report said counties rejected expansion dollars for several reasons, including the inability to cover the remaining 40% of program cost, the challenge of recruiting and retaining qualified teachers, and the unavailability of facility resources (space for Pre-K classes) within counties. In addition, NIEER’s research found that “county waiting lists”, the frequently discussed measure of need for additional slots in a county, were inaccurate and undercounting students. Reasons for their inaccuracy included the following:
In order to meet this need using a more equitable and objective service metric, NIEERs, as part of their report, advocated the state should set a goal to serve 75% of eligible children. Specifically, the NIEERs report explained that serving 75% of eligible children is a conservative, reasonable estimate for enrollment, and that this percentage is a common upper limit of families likely to participate in early care and education services. As pointed out in the report, some states have even higher enrollment rates, such as Florida with 80%. Policymakers and researchers have supported this goal, becoming part of the NC Early Childhood Action plan. MyFutureNC subsequently adopted this goal, though the target years across plans differ. With a coordinated, statewide effort, NC is well-positioned to achieve its goal.
 The NC Early Childhood Action Plan sets 2025 as a statewide target for enrolling 75% of eligible children in Pre-K, whereas myFutureNC sets 2030 as the target.