Kids sliding down a tube slide
Getting a bill through the legislative process can be a long, tortuous process. Credit: dadblunders, flickr creative commons

In the third part of our side-by-side comparisons of the House and Senate budgets, NC Health News breaks down both chambers’ plans for early-childhood education.

By Rose Hoban

Next to Medicaid, one of the most complicated parts of the Health and Human Services budget is the section that deals with early-childhood education. The Senate and House take quite different approaches to the area, with adjustments to different parts that, on the surface, don’t look that different. However, they are quite disparate.

According to Michele Rivest, head of the North Carolina Child Care Coalition, there are three different parts of the budget to pay attention to.

NC Pre-K, which was known as More at Four until mid-2011, is an early-childhood education program aimed at 4-year-olds. Rivest said the program is mostly aimed at economically and developmentally disadvantaged kids.

Rivest said kids attend the program for only part of the day and it’s “very prescribed” in terms of standards and licensure. The programs can be housed at a variety of locations including public schools that have extra rooms, free-standing centers or churches, but no religious instruction is permitted during the day.

North Carolina’s program has been on the receiving end of multiple national awards for quality.



NC Pre-K qualifications:

NC Pre-K qualifications:

  • children with family income below 75% of state median income (~ $50,975 for 4 person household in 2012)
  • active duty military
  • parent killed during military activity
  • other eligibility determinations via LEAs and Smart Start local partnerships
  • other than developmental disabilities or other chronic health issues, division shall not consider health of the child in eligibility determination
County DSS administrative allowance for Child Care subsidy = 3% or $80,000 (whichever is greater), for a reduction of $5.1M over two years County DSS administrative allowance for Child Care subsidy = 4% or $80,000 (whichever is greater)
Allows county DSSs to take additional 2% administrative costs out of allocation to do fraud detection
Adds 5,000 Pre-K slots (at the lower eligibility)Keeps higher eligibility, but eliminates 2,500 Pre-K slots in the first FY and eliminates 5,000 Pre-K slots in the second FY
Adds $24.8 million in funding in each year, coming from  lottery receipts (NC Pre-K has traditionally been funded by state general fund & by lottery receipts)Cuts $12.4 million in FY 2013-14 and $24.9 million in 2014-15 from Pre-K and transfers this money to Child Care subsidies (below)
Reduces the waiting list by tightening eligibilityCreates more of a waiting list while maintaining wide eligibility

Smart Start, according to Rivest, is the infrastructure of North Carolina’s early-childhood education system, organized through local Partnership for Children organizations that serve all 100 counties.

Based on the number of young children in each county, each partnership gets a certain allocation of funds.

“Smart Start helps them develop the programs and services to strengthen the local early-childhood education system in their communities,” Rivest said.

The program serves children from 0-5 years of age.

“By law, they have to put some funding into child-care subsidies; they have to put some money into improving the quality of early-childhood education,” she said.

She listed teacher qualification and training, curriculum development, supports for child care and training for providers as just a few of the activities Smart Start dollars have to provide.

Smart Start can also use 30 percent of the local allocation for child-health and family-support programming; for example, educating first-time parents about their child’s learning and development.

“We’ve been able to to move child-care centers up the star system ladder, to move many of them toward 4- and 5-star ratings,” Rivest said. “So now about two-thirds of all children are in child-care centers that are defined as ‘high quality.’”



Leaves Smart Start funding in place at $146 million of state dollarsCommittee language states budget moves about 42 percent of Smart Start funding to county DSS programs in order to add to Child Care subsidies; total allocation ~$84.6 million (see below)
Increases percentage Smart Start local partnerships have to match to state dollars from 13 percent to 15 percent over two years. Increases percentage Smart Start local partnerships have to match to state dollars from 13 percent to 15 percent over 2 years

The third part of the early-childhood budget is for Child Care subsidies, a program that’s been in place since the 1960s that allows for low-income working families to have access to child care. The program serves children from 0-13 years of age.

“Without access to child-care support, these low-income families often can’t work,” Rivest said. “It’s a necessity for working families, and that makes it a necessity for employers across the state who want to hire those workers.

“It’s a significant driver for the economy,” she said. “It’s a $1.6 billion industry.”

The total budget for Child Care subsidies is about $348 million; 80 percent of that comes from the federal government, 20 percent from state government, costing North Carolina about $69.6 million.

Rivest said most parents know the Child Care programs are more than just “babysitting.”

“We have teachers with Pre-K licenses working in child care and limited classroom sizes, and we require educational outcomes, a lot of the same things for any early-childhood education program,” she said.



Child Care program similar language to Senate Child Care program similar language to House
Keeps Child Care subsidies essentially the same Adds $9.8 million in FY 2013-14 and $22.2 million in FY 2014-15, a total of $5.3 million less than what was cut from NC Pre-K
Takes money from both Smart Start and from Pre-K and puts into Child Care subsidies to be administered by local county Departments of Social Services
Waiting list is about 40,000 currentlyWaiting list reduced from about 40,000 by 2,500-3,000 children

RIvest said she’s concerned about some of the transfers made, in particular in the Senate budget.

“What worries me is that the Senate, in shifting money from Pre-K over to Child Care subsidies, or moving money from Smart Start to Child Care subsidies, makes it sound like it’s apples to apples, but it’s not,” she said.

Rivest said in the two decades since the beginning of Smart Start and the local Partnerships for Children, the program has become recognized as one of the nation’s premier early-childhood education systems.

“The Senate would just destroy that because it would be dismantling Smart Start. You cut any agencies by 42 percent, you’d have a hard time surviving, right?” Rivest asked.

“It’s a deep blow,” she said.

Cover photo courtesy dadblunders, flickr creative commons

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Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...