It’s welcome news that two new federal grants will give North Carolina $56 million over the next seven years to help early childhood programs, but the extra money comes within a disappointing context: The state isn’t spending nearly enough to provide more children a better start in life.
Gov. Roy Cooper announced the grants last week: a $40.2 million Preschool Development Grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and a $16 million grant from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The grants represent a major new investment in early childhood programs, but the amounts also highlight the scale of the need that remains unmet.
There are currently 38,000 children on the waiting list for the state’s child care subsidy program that would help some parents enroll their children in preschool, according to the nonprofit group N.C. Child. Clearing the list would cost at least $269 million, the group said, and that doesn’t address the 300,000 children ages 0 to 12 who are eligible for the subsidies but have not applied.
Meanwhile, the nonprofit research group WestED’s recent evaluation of state education needs recommended that the state spend an additional $1.2 billion for early childhood education programs. That’s a big expense, but only about a third of the annual cost of the state’s recent tax cuts. The state is falling short on pre-K education not only because of differences over funding requests, but differences over at what age the investment should be made. Gov. Cooper, a Democrat, has pushed for increasing spending on preschool programs and better pay for preschool teachers. Senate leader Phil Berger, a Rockingham County Republican, has focused on promoting proficiency in reading by third grade through the Read to Achieve program.
Even as the new federal grants were being announced, Mark Johnson, the Republican superintendent of Public Instruction, and Berger were caught up in a dispute over a contract for evaluating third-grade reading skills and whether too many third-grade students were being promoted despite not having achieved reading proficiency.
Berger is passionate about setting a reading standard for promotion to fourth grade. He said in a statement: “There is no better guarantor of intergenerational poverty than failing to educate a child. If a child cannot read properly by fourth grade, that child is significantly less likely to succeed. To ignore that reality is to risk that child’s potential and perhaps sentence her to a lifetime of underachieving. It’s cruel and it must stop.”
No doubt the Senate leader is sincere, but his emphasis appears misplaced. The best way to get more children reading properly by fourth grade is to invest in programs that expand their exposure to language and reading years earlier. Cooper made that point in announcing the federal grants. He said, “The science is just overwhelming as to how much of a difference early childhood education makes in whether a child is going to succeed in school and in life.”
The Trump administration, hardly a champion of spending more on public schools, understands the value of supporting children in their early years through greater access to preschool programs. North Carolina understands it as well. The state has designed some of the nation’s most innovative preschool programs. But now it’s time to go beyond helping some children to helping all. The federal grants should be the start of a major state push to give all eligible children a strong preparation for school.