By Leah Asmelash

In each version of the North Carolina budget presented this year, from Gov. Roy Cooper to leaders of the Senate and the House of Representatives, lawmakers crowed about how they were chipping away at waiting lists for the state’s subsidized NC Pre-K program.

“Over the next two years, we’re adding $27 million to create an addition 3,525 new Pre-K  slots,” said House Appropriations chair Rep. Nelson Dollar (R-Cary) during a press conference to announce the final compromise budget between the two chambers of the legislature.

shows children playing with toy fruits and vegetables
Kids at a child care center participate in a “fruit lesson” to learn about healthy eating. Photo courtesy Wayne Community College Child Care.

“This will eliminate 75 percent of the current waitlist for at-risk children. And we certainly hope to continue to work on that, but this… this is the largest single investment I can remember addressing Pre-K children.”

But solving the waiting list problem for NC Pre-K may not be so straightforward. In conversations and emails exchanges with managers in more than a dozen of North Carolina’s largest counties, NC Health News found that different counties tabulate their waiting lists differently, so the same county may have a waiting list for part of the year but not the rest of the year and some counties simply turn people away without placing them on waiting lists.

It’s not just funds for Pre-K that keeps kids away. Long travel times and transportation issues limit access in some places. And the availability of the program can depend on whether more of a county’s programs are privately run or housed in elementary schools.

It’s hard to know exactly how big the waiting list for NC Pre-K actually is at any given time and whether the additional state dollars will solve the problem of 4 year olds missing their one shot at Pre-K because there’s no space for them.

Public & private

NC Pre-K is different from traditional pre-kindergarten programs in public schools. Eligible children must be 4 years old and must come from families whose income is at or below 75 percent of the state median income, $44,390 for a family of four. Placement is not guaranteed — hence the waiting lists.

The state doesn’t cover the entire cost of NC Pre-K, but instead pays a certain amount as reimbursement to those who provide the service. This year, the state budget allowed for $69.6 million in appropriations to cover the costs of NC Pre-K that came from the state’s General Fund. The rest of the $154.5 million required to cover the program comes from lottery proceeds and federal funds.

two little boys paint on easels while a woman with a identity tag looks on.
Preschools housed in elementary schools can apply for federal funding to help cover the costs not covered by state dollars. Photo credit: Shanna Trim, Flickr Creative Commons

Legislators applied $47.8 million from the General Fund in last year’s budget for Pre-K, this year’s appropriation is a $21.7 million increase over last year.

In a 2017 study done by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, the average cost per slot in the NC Pre-K program is $9,126, of which the state covers 61 percent. The provider covers the remaining cost.

In the 2015-16 school year (the most recent year for data), more than half of the NC Pre-K providers were in a public school site (51.6 percent). Those sites have access to federal Title I funds, as well as other federal and state funding.

Private providers (32.9 percent) don’t have that luxury. Though their reimbursement rate is usually higher than their public counterparts, they are still left with a shortfall that can be met by funds from local Smart Start agencies or fundraisers. These options can vary by county.

“Private childcare sites have the biggest struggle in meeting their cost of care,” said Stacey Bailey, Buncombe County’s NC Pre-K program coordinator. “They don’t have any guaranteed additional funding streams.”

Funding that changes from year to year means the number of places in NC Pre-K that a county can fund changes every year, which affects the length of the waitlist.

In Mecklenberg County, 3,669 families who applied qualified for NC Pre-K, but the county could fund only 1,006 spaces. In Alamance County, over 600 families have applied for NC Pre-K already, with months left in the application period, but county officials can fund only 426 children. In Catawba County, there are an estimated 1,100 eligible kids, but they can fund only 322 spots.

All the counties mentioned have a waitlist.

The number of kids on a county’s waitlist isn’t static, it’s something that fluctuates frequently over the course of a year, managers in all those counties said.

Getting there is half the battle

Victor Coffenberry, Pitt County’s NC Pre-K program director, said transportation, or lack thereof, has a great impact on waiting lists.

“We don’t provide transportation,” he said. “So when you’re looking about placing a classroom somewhere, you have to look about, ‘Okay where do I have children where the parents can get them to that location?’”

“That’s difficult.”

Coffenberry said there are lots of things that determine the length of a waiting list. Parents move away, or their car breaks down and children can’t get to Pre-K anymore, so they take children off of the waitlist.

Transportation is a major challenge for families in Buncombe County as well, said Bailey.

“For public schools, transportation is embedded in their program, for private child care providers, it’s not necessarily embedded to their program,” she said. “So families who want to come and participate in NC Pre-K, they have to be able to drive their child and drop them off in the morning and pick them up at the end of the school day. And for some families, if they only have one car for instance, that can be a struggle.”

Especially if their car needs maintenance or repair and the family doesn’t have the means to take care of it, Bailey said.

And since the cost of NC Pre-K isn’t completely funded by the state, that third of providers that are private organizations simply cannot fund transportation.

Nearly all of the county managers said there’s almost always children left on the list at the end of the year, all 4 year olds who missed their one shot at Pre-K. .

As far as program expansion goes, Coffenberry said the process of pulling together more resources – teachers and classrooms – takes time to plan, and may not be ready as soon as the government gives them money, especially if the state dollars land in the bank closer to the school year.

“I’d hate for a rush of people,” he said. “Everyone’s showing up saying ‘Oh, you’ve got expansion, you should be able to place all the kids, where’s my spot?’ And, you have to say, ‘Well, it’s not that easy.’”

Susan Gates, an education advisor with the SAS Institute, said she’s pleased with the state’s efforts to decrease the waitlists, but there’s still work left.

“Over 33,000 children across the state who are eligible for the program will still not be able to access it,” she said. “Not every county keeps a ‘waiting list,’ and many families may not apply if they believe there will not be space for their child.”

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Leah Asmelash is a rising junior in the Journalism and Mass Communication program at UNC Chapel Hill, and is NC Health News' 2017 summer intern. She's studying studying global studies with a focus on international...