House and Senate Budgets Leave Too Many Children Behind

By Michele Rivest, Policy Director, NC Early Education Coalition
June 10, 2019

One of my favorite things about the Children’s Defense Fund is their motto, “Leave No Child Behind.” The image of a single child left adrift in a big ocean is such a powerful message to act. It conveys the essence of our collective advocacy work – to make sure that every child and their family gets the support they want and need to be successful in school and in life.

All children thrive when they have opportunities for healthy beginnings, supported families and early care and learning. This is the foundation of our Think Babies™ NC work. We know that many of North Carolina’s 363,000 children under age three will have access to all the opportunities and resources they need within their own families and communities to be successful. But for too many other children, the road ahead is full of challenges and obstacles that will adversely affect their healthy development and early learning. These children and their families need to be surrounded by community services and resources that will provide them with just the right dose of support to get them off to a healthy start in life. Our Think Babies policy agenda believes that all children and families need access to health care, home visiting and parenting education programs, paid family and medical leave, and quality infant toddler care and early learning. These early years are the time of greatest brain development, and the opportunities children have during this time set the course for all future learning and success.

Both the House and Senate budgets provide some indication of what our state policymakers are willing to invest in to support our youngest children and families. Unfortunately, both budget proposals are woefully inadequate and leave too many children behind.

Let’s just take a look at one slice of the pie – early childhood education. Of the more than $22 billion state budget, less than $1 billion (not even 5%) went to young children served by the NC Division of Child Development and early education (DCDEE). DCDEE is the state agency responsible for the “big three” early childhood programs – Smart Start, NC Pre-K, and Child Care Subsidies. Total funding allocations in all three categories fell far below what was needed. Below are some highlights and our commentary on the House and Senate budgets.

  • Smart Start

The final House budget includes a $7 million increase and the Senate budget includes a $4.8 million increase for Smart Start over two years, but it is non-recurring funding in both budgets which will make it difficult for local partnerships to expand services to children and families in an ongoing way. Original House and Senate Smart Start bills (H124 and S336) had bi-partisan support and included $20 million in appropriations.

These budget proposals are especially troubling for our Think Babies™ NC priority to expand home visiting and parenting education, as this category of family support received just $1.2 million of the total $7 million Smart Start two-year allocation. The 2018 UNC Home Visiting Landscape report showed just 1% of all children had access to home visiting and 11 counties had no home visiting programs at all. State budget leaders did little to close the home visiting gap through Smart Start or in the House budget of $4.5 one-time funding provided to the Nurse Family Partnership Program under the Division of Public Health budget. The Senate did not include any funding for this important home visiting program.

    • Child Care Subsidy Assistance for Working Families

Both the House budget of $7 million and the Senate budget of $3.2 million fall far short of what is needed to provide quality early learning opportunities for young children and working families, especially considering there are almost 30,000 eligible children on the waitlist right now, and only about 20% of all eligible children are currently served. It is an extremely disappointing under-investment in child care subsidy assistance. The Coalition’s original budget request was for $31 million, which would have served 6,000 children. If budget leaders had not moved $50 million in state money out of NC Pre-K last year and replaced it with the federal TANF money, legislators would have had at least this much money to invest in expanding child care subsidy assistance to working families. $50 million would have allowed the state to serve an additional 8,000 eligible families and their children.

The House and Senate budget action is very short-sighted, especially considering that the entire state is a child care desert, with every county experiencing severe shortages in quality infant-toddler programs and other child care programs that serve low-income children and families. Under these proposals, 74 counties will be able to serve 10 or fewer eligible children, and some smaller counties will receive only enough funding to support 1 or 2 additional children. Child care programs are not likely to expand their infant toddler classrooms, or any classrooms for that matter, as resources are simply inadequate.

  • NC Pre-K

By the time a child reaches age four, it’s often too late for many children, yet this is where the House and Senate budgets both invest recurring state funding. Both the House and Senate budget leaders declared their overall commitment to NC Pre-K expansion by including the $9 million in state funding that was previously appropriated in FY 2018-19 budget and providing some addition funding for rate increases for private child care teacher salaries, by including $1.7 million in recurring state funding for a 2% rate increase in FY 19-20 and $5.3 million in recurring funding for a 6% increase FY 20-21. However, the Senate limits their proposed funding increase to a 2% rate and increase of 1.7 million increase in both years.

While both Senate and House budget leaders did keep their commitment to NC Pre-K expansion by in the upcoming budgets, their approach leaves a lot to be desired. Both House and Senate budgets once again reduced state funding for NC Pre-K and replaced it with federal TANF funding, which negatively impacts the amount of funding available for child care subsidy assistance for working families and makes NC Pre-K increasingly dependent on federal funding. This trend started last year when both the Senate and House voted to reduce NC Pre-K state funding by $50 million and replaced it with federal TANF child care subsidy funding, which dropped the state share to an all-time low of just 24%.

Despite continued investment in NC Pre-K, 30 counties did not expand the program which clearly indicates there are significant barriers to expansion. The rate increases are too low, and fail to provide much needed administrative or programmatic support and upfront funding to recruit and hire teachers and outfit new classrooms.

Leaving so many children behind has incredible individual human costs. These families would benefit greatly from opportunities to access quality early learning programs to support their children’s healthy development and early learning to be on track for third grade reading success. It also has huge economic costs for all of us too. When families do not have the child care they need, parents’ work productivity falls, resulting in costs to parents, their employers, and, ultimately, taxpayers. The costs of insufficient childcare are immense. A recent report by ReadyNation shows that under investing in the state’s early childhood programs comes to $1.7 billion in annual costs for North Carolina.

The good news is there’s still time in this year’s budget process for state budget leaders to take the House and Senate early childhood education budgets to a stronger place by the time the final state budget is adopted. And there’s more money: North Carolina’s revenue projections are on track to post the highest surplus since the Great Recession, which means state budget leaders will have access to over $700 million above earlier projections.

It’s time our state leaders understand and act on the power of investing in our youngest children and their families. When we support them in their earliest years, we prepare our babies to grow, learn and succeed—and our communities, workforce and economy become stronger and more productive. Now, it’s up to all of us to remind them to leave no child behind. Make your calls, send your emails and visit your legislators and tell them it’s time to Think Babies and make their potential our top priority!