Taxpayer-funded pre-kindergarten education in the United States is a multibillion-dollar hodgepodge of state and federal programs.
The North Carolina Division of Child Development and Early Education, a division within the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), oversees two large state programs — NC Pre-K and the Subsidized Child Care Program. NC Pre-K is a preschool program for at-risk 4-year-olds. (The Subsidized Child Care Program is discussed separately.)
In addition, Smart Start is a public/private program that was established in 1993 to serve children from birth to five years old. The N.C. Partnership for Children and 77 local partnerships oversee the program. Smart Start provides child care subsidies, teacher training, health screenings, and support for families regardless of income.
North Carolina also has three federally funded prekindergarten programs — Preschool for Exceptional Children, Title I Preschool, and Head Start. Preschool for Exceptional Children is supported by state and federal funds and provides pre-kindergarten services for special-needs children. Title I Preschool allows school districts to set aside a portion of their federal Title I funding to provide prekindergarten programs for at-risk 4-year-olds.
Finally, the federal Head Start program is the largest and one of the oldest federal pre-kindergarten initiatives in North Carolina. Head Start provides education, health, and nutrition services to low-income children between the ages of three and five.
A handful of longitudinal studies have found that high-quality, state-run early childhood education programs may provide lasting benefits for children who live in poverty or have endured physical or emotional trauma.
But these benefits are not universal and may be short-lived.
In a landmark 2012 study of Head Start outcomes, researchers concluded that, by third grade, there was no significant difference between children who had been randomly assigned to a Head Start program and those who had not. This finding was consistent with previous studies that concluded that the initial advantages of preschool attendance for the typical child begin to narrow or “fade out” by middle school.
Empirical evidence of “fade out” is directly at odds with the most prominent and appealing argument used by proponents of taxpayer-run preschool programs. They contend that state lawmakers have a choice. They can pay now for expanded preschool programs or pay later for the costs associated with educational remediation, crime, underemployment, and welfare.
On the surface, the “pay now or pay later” argument embodies the kind of reasonable, responsible, and compassionate public policy that appeals to elected officials on both sides of the aisle. But longitudinal studies, including research conducted in North Carolina, suggest that taxpayers may have to pay now and later.
- To be eligible for NC Pre-K, families must have a household income that is 75 percent of state median income. Military families and families with a child who has Limited English Proficiency, special needs, disability, or extraordinary educational need may also qualify, regardless of income.
- During the 2015-16 school year, NC Pre-K received over $144 million in state and lottery funds and served over 26,000 children in nearly 1,200 child care facilities statewide.
- Approximately one in four NC Pre-K classrooms operated in a for-profit site. Of the remaining classrooms, just over half were located in public schools. Around 16 percent were in Head Start programs, a small percentage of which were operated by public schools.
- Five states – Idaho, Montana, New Hampshire, South Dakota, and Wyoming – have no state-funded preschool programs.
- Existing early childhood programs should be consolidated or significantly reorganized. It is neither necessary, nor beneficial, to maintain multiple early childhood programs with different governance structures,funding distribution mechanisms, and accountability standards.
- NC Pre-K eligibility requirements should be narrowed to focus greater resources on education and services for low-income children. State-subsidized preschool programs provide lasting benefits to children from distressed households but seldom help children from middle- or upper-income families. Narrowing the focus to aiding North Carolina’s most vulnerable children would ensure that NC Pre-K prioritizes the educational needs of those who would benefit the most.
- Acknowledge and employ strategies that address fade-out effects. Some proponents of state-funded early childhood education choose to disregard or dismiss evidence of fade out. Instead, they should concede that fade-out is not an anomaly or statistical artifact. Rather, they should focus on promoting research-based improvements in early learning that enable more children to retain behavioral and educational gains into elementary school and beyond.