Survey of Preschool Providers Identifies Barriers to Expanding NC Pre-K to More Eligible Children

Barriers to increasing the supply of NC Pre-K classrooms for eligible four-year-olds include reimbursement rates that don’t cover the actual cost of care, a lack of space for new classrooms, a shortage of qualified teachers and the funding to pay them adequately, and transportation, a recent study has found. The study’s findings and recommendations align with past assessments and recommendations by national experts and NC business leaders, as well as strategies for action in the Pathways to Grade-Level Reading Action Framework.

NC Pre-K is one of the highest-quality state-funded preschool programs in the country. Despite a stated goal that 75 percent of eligible four-year-olds will have access to the program, currently only half of eligible children are enrolled. As the following graphic shows, there are also significant disparities across counties in terms of the percentages of eligible children served.

Responding to a legislative mandate, high quality preschool providers in NC were surveyed by FPG to identify barriers to becoming an NC Pre-K site and expanding capacity of current NC Pre-K sites. Survey participants included 82 current NC Pre‐K contractors, 562 current NC Pre‐K providers, and 400 early care and education providers in four‐ and five‐star centers who are not currently providing NC Pre-K. A report sharing the findings was submitted by the Department of Health and Human Services, Division of Child Development and Early Education to the NC General Assembly in June.

Barriers to Expansion

Four‐ and five‐star child care programs that do not currently provide NC Pre‐K classrooms identified a range of challenges to participating in NC Pre‐K:

  • Inadequate reimbursement rates to support the higher standards required by NC Pre‐K and provide compensation parity with NC Pre‐K teachers in public school settings
  • Shortage of qualified teachers
  • Lack of transportation for children
  • Insufficient space for additional classrooms
  • Administrative requirements, such as initial paperwork

Four- and five-start child care programs that currently provide NC Pre-K classrooms cited challenges related to maintaining and adding NC Pre‐K classrooms:

  • Inadequate reimbursement rates to recoup the actual cost to provide the program
  • Challenges in hiring, retaining and providing adequate compensation for qualified teachers, which is compounded by lower compensation in private settings versus public school settings
  • Increasing operating costs without adjustments to the reimbursement rate for inflation
  • Transportation for children is not provided, which impacts reliable attendance
  • Inadequate resources to identify additional eligible children in the provider’s community
  • Insufficient space for additional classrooms

Though sample sizes did not allow county-by-county reporting, in more than half the counties, both sets of providers identified challenges related to funding (such as rising operating costs and inadequate reimbursement rates) and staffing issues (such as the inability to recruit and provide adequate compensation for qualified teachers).

Report Recommendations

Particularly given recent developments in the Leandro court case, the survey results underscore the need for more state funding to support program infrastructure and the actual cost of providing an NC Pre‐K slot in order to expand access to eligible children. The current funding structure does not include costs to support program transportation for children or pay parity for teachers with teaching credentials in private settings, or other start‐up/infrastructure development costs, such as facility and classroom funding, or building a pipeline of qualified teachers. Current funding for the program also leaves out about 32,000 eligible children each year.

The report makes recommendations for expanding access to NC Pre-K for eligible children, including:

  • Increase capacity for programs to provide NC Pre‐K and families to participate by:
    • Increasing incrementally the state reimbursement rate for NC Pre‐K slots to pay for the actual cost per child by 2028
    • Increasing support for monitoring, oversight and technical assistance from four percent to 10 percent
    • Expanding NC Pre‐K to a full year program, instead of the current 10 months
    • Increasing incrementally the number of children served, with a goal of serving 75 percent of eligible four-year-olds by 2028
  • Ensure that federal funds dedicated for child care are fully used to support child care subsidies for eligible working families.
  • Fund NCDHHS to conduct a cost feasibility study of providing an alternative classroom‐based funding model for NC Pre‐K and make recommendations to the General Assembly by April 15, 2021.
  • Establish an Early Educator Fund to address pay parity for NC Pre‐K teachers working in private child care centers and build an early childhood teacher pipeline.
  • Fund NCDHHS to study and make recommendations for an improved data collection process to identify children eligible for NC Pre‐K in each county and report to the General Assembly by April 15, 2021.

The full report is available online.