AT THE SCHOOLHOUSE DOOR: Building a Strong Workforce Starts in Early Childhood

By Elizabeth Queen
November 4, 2013

Quality early childhood education and child care are essential for caring for our youngest residents, promoting a healthy economy and creating a strong, qualified workforce that benefits all of us. Several programs currently in place in North Carolina work together to provide high quality early childhood education and child care for our youngest North Carolinians while also helping families meet the economic demands of a 21st century economy.

  • NC Pre-K (formerly More at Four) provides high-quality, cost-effective early childhood education for at-risk four-year-olds. This includes children with limited English proficiency, chronic health conditions, developmental or educational needs, a parent or parents serving as active duty military personnel, and/or a maximum family income of 75% of the State median income level. [1]
  • Smart Start provides highly-praised and proven-effective child care for children five years old and younger through partnerships between the North Carolina Partnership for Children and local communities. It also equips parents with tools to support their children’s education and healthy development and promotes access to preventative health care. In addition, Smart Start helps local child care programs improve their facilities to meet NC Pre-K standards.[2]
  • Child care subsidies provide financial assistance to low-income families so parents can obtain safe and appropriate child care while working or attending school. Because child care is so expensive, many low-income working families would not be able to afford child care without this vital support and consequently could either remain unemployed, lose a job, or be forced to place their child in an unsafe situation.

Our children, families and future are at risk because state lawmakers do not adequately invest in these critical building blocks for success.

  • Despite a court order requiring the State to provide NC Pre-K to all at-risk four-year-olds who apply, the state budget that lawmakers passed this year leaves the state with 2,400 fewer Pre-K slots for at-risk 4-year-olds than last year. The previous budget allotted funding for 4,900 slots; however, the new budget eliminates funding for almost half of those slots.[3] This decision is part of a pattern of decline in the number of slots serving North Carolina’s children over the past few years.


Number of Children Enrolled in NC Pre-K













Source: NC DHHS Division of Child Development and Early Education
*Projection based on 2013 Budget

  • Funding has been cut for North Carolina’s Children’s Developmental Services Agencies, which provide therapy and other services for children ages  three and younger with developmental delays. These cuts will force four of the 16 agencies to close.[4]
  • For purposes of NC Pre-K, the House attempted to drastically limit the definition of “at-risk” to exclude tens of thousands of our state’s most vulnerable children by reducing income eligibility and eliminating limited English proficiency as one of the criteria for eligibility.[5] The Senate did not adopt these harmful measures this session.
  • In the most recent budget adopted by the General Assembly, funding for child care subsidies will remain consistent in the coming year by utilizing federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funding rather than funding from the state general fund.[6] While lawmakers did not make cuts to this program, they also did not increase investment to meet the need of North Carolina families. More than 34,000 eligible children are stuck on a waiting list because of inadequate funding.[7] Further, funding is only available for parents to attend post-secondary education for 20 months of enrollment. This does not provide for enough time to earn a bachelor’s degree, which is increasingly required to obtain a job with a decent wage.
  • The General Assembly repealed the formula for distributing Education Lottery funding established when the lottery was created in 2005. [8] The formula directed 50% of the lottery’s net proceeds to efforts to reduce class sizes in early elementary education and expand and support Pre-K education. [9] However, now that this safeguard is no longer in place, lawmakers can allocate lottery funding that ordinarily would have gone to Pre-K to fill other holes in the education budget. This year they have allocated just 15.67% of the lottery net proceeds to NC Pre-K. [10]  This amount allows only a fraction of North Carolina’s eligible children to receive the early childhood education that is so vital for their success and ours.[11] There are currently 11,678 children on the waiting list for NC Pre-K.  Of the estimated 65,000-67,000 at risk four-year-olds (estimate from the Office of Child Development and Early Education) in the state, only 24,633 were served in 2012-2013 (about 38%).[12]

These cuts don’t just hurt families with young children. They hurt all of us.

Investment in early childhood education yields incredibly high returns. Investments in early childhood education correlate with increased property values (by as much as $13 of returns per $1 of annual investment in Pre-K[13]) as well as greater educational achievement and employment outcomes for enrolled children as they grow into adulthood. Not only does this allow these citizens to contribute more to the state in tax revenues, it also prevents costs to the state for special education, involvement with the criminal justice system, and welfare programs.[14]

Investment in child care subsidies promotes workforce development across a child’s lifespan, as child care subsidies allow parents to work or attain education to meet the increasing demands of our economy, support the employment stability of the child care workforce and support the education and future success of our youngest children.  Parents and guardians are able to remain present and focused at school and work when they are sure their children are being properly cared for, making them more loyal and successful students and employees.

Far from saving money in the budget, these cuts actually rob us of valuable financial gains both now and in the future.  The current lack of investment in early childhood education and child care damages our ability to build the highly skilled workforce necessary to compete in the national and global economy.[15]

[1] Ellen S. Peisner-Feinberg and Jennifer M. Schaaf, UNC Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, Summary of Key Findings: Effects of the North Carolina More at Four Pre-Kindergarten Program on Children’s School Readiness Skills, 2011,

[4]See endnote 3

[5]Chris Hill and Matt Ellinwood, House Bill 935: NC Pre-K Law Changes,July 2013,

[6] NC Partnership for Children, Inc., 2013 Smart Start Legislation,July2013,

[7]NC Division of Child Development: Subsidy Expenditure Report, July 2013.

[8] Gary D. Robertson, NC Lottery Proceeds No Longer Linked to Formula, September 2013,

[9] See endnote 8

[10] See endnote 3

[11] Division of Child Development and Early Education, Presentation on NC Pre-K to Joint Appropriations Committee on Health and Human Services, April 2013,,%202013/HHS%20Pre-K%20Presentation%204-4-13.pdf

[12] See endnote 11

[13]Ready Nation, Attracting, Developing, and Maintaining Human Capital: A New Model for Economic Development,June 2012,

[14]Policy and Impact Committee of The Committee for Economic Development, Unfinished Business: Continued Investment in Child Care and Early Education is Critical to Business and America’s Future, June 2012,

[15] Jeff Lacker, Technology, Unemployment and Workforce Development in a Rapidly Changing World, May 2012,


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