Could universal pre-K work in New Hanover County?
There are close to forty-four hundred preschool students in licensed programs in New Hanover County, but that represents just 37% of pre-K aged children. The county has been asked to consider universal pre-K, but there are barriers to expanding.
Back in November, the New Hanover County/City of Wilmington Community Relations Advisory Committee, which is tasked with addressing discrimination, released a list of eight recommendations to increase equity in the school system. Committee member Scott Whisnant talks about one of them:
“We’d like to see a universal pre-K plan. One thing that’s loud and clear is that far too many of our children aren’t ready for kindergarten. And the reason is, there’s just not enough slots in the county available.”
While New Hanover County Schools does have a pre-K program, supported by federal, state, and local funding, it serves less than 10 percent of pre-school age children.
Duke University professor Dr. Kenneth Dodge has studied the long-term impacts of well-funded pre-K programs throughout the state:
“And those children who live in the counties where there’s more financial support fare better. We’ve followed them through the end of the eighth grade so far. Their outcomes are better than those children in counties not getting financial support in terms of higher reading achievement scores, higher math achievement scores, less use of special education, and less grade retention. So on all four of those measures, there are positive impacts.”
So there are visible results with providing this education, but the question remains, how realistic is it to implement the Committee’s recommendation to provide universal pre-K by 2022?
Shannon Smiles is the Director of Early Childhood Education for New Hanover County:
“But there’s a lot of pieces that have to come together when the outcome is universal preschool. I feel we’re a long way from there, but we’re on the right track.”
“It’s one of these few times that you can actually say, if we fund it, we can actually make a difference. So naturally, my push has been, why are we hung up on 45 desks? Why don’t we make it 90 desks? Sounds like we’ve got the demand.”
Zapple says that the county has paid $1.9 million for the program since 2018.
Zapple hopes his fellow commissioners will discuss with the school board how to allocate more funding to that program:
“Hopefully, we can have this conversation, this work session sometime in late January or February, we can have an open public discussion as to the need and benefit of it, and to be able to focus dollars to increase that number.”
But universal pre-K will require a lot more funding. Jane Morrow of New Hanover County Smart Start estimates that it would be roughly $10 million dollars to provide a voluntary universal program for four-year-olds in the county, although she says, “That’s definitely sort of back of the envelope calculating.”
Morrow says for calculating the numbers per slot, it's different for private pre-K sites versus public school ones. She says private programs have to pay rent and additional utilities.
For example, the state funds about 570 NC Pre-Kindergarten seats for four-year-olds in the county. For private centers, it's about $650 per student, and for public, it's about $473. About 60% of these slots are at public sites.
And Head Start, which is federal program, funds about 260 pre-K students in the county.
And while the current push is to increase access to lower-income families, Professor Dodge says the goal should be for everyone who wants it:
“So I’m not in favor of targeting based on a demographic. Those programs that target based on demographics are not as good programs. You know, the slogan is that programs for poor children are poor programs. And that better programs target everybody now, so it makes sense to me, for pre-kindergarten to become universal.”
Jane Morrow likens this to a moment in 1976: “When the state started offering kindergarten years and years ago, every single parent said, I can send my child to kindergarten if I want to, this isn’t for some children, and so there was not this sort of us and them.”
Jane Morrow is the executive director of Smart Start of New Hanover County -- and has been working with the nonprofit for over 20 years.
She says one obstacle to adding more pre-K seats is finding enough qualified staff:
“We really do have some pipeline issues for well-educated teachers. It’s not a particularly well-paid profession. It’s not a particularly high prestige profession.”
New Hanover County Commissioner Rob Zapple says another issue is not everyone in the county wants a universal model:
“But I think in the language I’ve learned to be really specific about is using the word ‘eligible’. In other words, pre-K eligible students, because there’s also a huge part of our community that wants nothing to do with pre-K.”
Other hurdles to extending pre-K numbers are funding and facilities to house the students. The pandemic has also complicated efforts to divert resources to preschool expansion.