By Rose Hoban
In the past three budget years, North Carolina’s various early-childhood education programs – Head Start, NC Pre-K and Smart Start – have seen almost $70 million trimmed from their state allocations. Advocates for early-childhood programs say that the prospects for the budget coming out of the legislative short session that begins in mid-May don’t look much better.
“Last year, we were trying to stop the hemorrhaging and make sure early education remained a priority in the budget,” said Michelle Rivest, executive director of the NC Child Care Coalition, a statewide advocacy group.
“There are many ways that all of these programs have been underfunded, but the reality is that we’re not going to make a push for a budget increase because there’s not much indication that it would be supported.”
There are about 100,000 4-year-olds in the state, about 45,000 of whom qualify for subsidies to participate in the N.C. Pre-K program, according to Rivest. But currently, there’s only funding to support 26,000 kids in the program per year.
“So we’re clearly not serving all the children who are eligible,” she said.
Rivest pointed out that the rates paid to child-care centers as part of the state-funded child-care subsidy have not increased since 2007. That’s resulting in some child-care centers closing and frozen teacher salaries.
“We know that 41 percent of the child-care workforce was on some form of public assistance,” Rivest said. “They’re grossly underpaid.”
Data from the 2012 workforce survey compiled by the N.C. Child Care Services Association found median income for the highest-paid teachers in child-care centers was only $12 per hour, even in 4- and 5-star facilities. The vast majority of centers do not pay for health or retirement benefits. Rivest said it’s no surprise that centers experience about 20 percent turnover annually, and, according to the survey, about one in five teachers leaves the field after three years.
Last week, when asked whether the Department of Health and Human Services would be advocating for increased early-education budgets, Sec. Aldona Wos said that her department is getting “far, far smarter in how we use the one cent we have available to us.”
“There’s only a certain amount of times you can take that pie and slice it,” Wos told child-care leaders gathered at a meeting on reducing childhood obesity.
“So we don’t work on … one person works on one part of the equation, two people double it on another and the third person doesn’t have any resources to work on something else,” Wos continued.
“We maximize federal resources and we have funding from the child-care development fund; we work to maximize the number of kids that we can serve with those dollars,” Rob Kindsvatter, head of the Division of Child Development and Early Education, told the group when Wos asked him to elaborate.
Attempts to reach DHHS officials for further clarification of what changes were being made or what savings have been achieved were unsuccessful at the time of publication.
Rivest said one of the challenges for early-childhood education advocates in the past several years is educating new lawmakers about how much bang for the buck the state can derive from early-intervention efforts. She said older legislators who helped champion programs early on are gone and many lawmakers in the General Assembly are freshmen or sophomores who’ve not heard the message before.
“It surprises our coalition members when we say that many legislators don’t know about the value of early education,” she said.
So even as the economy slowly improves, Rivest and others say early-intervention advocates should be focusing on holding steady, not expanding.
“While the need remains great and there’s never been more evidence to prove the effectiveness of early education, it still remains significantly underfunded,” she said.