Blog: A Sound, Basic Education Begins in Early Childhood

A Sound, Basic Education Begins in Early Childhood

By Elaine Zukerman, Advocacy & Communications Director, NC Early Education Coalition
June 8, 2021

The landmark case of Leandro v. State of North Carolina affirms every child’s state constitutional right to a sound, basic education beginning in early childhood. For more than 25 years, North Carolina lawmakers from both parties have failed to meet this constitutional obligation. We believe that the Leandro Plan is a path forward to ensuring that every child – regardless of race, family income, or zip code – has a foundation for success in school and in life.

Leandro is an opportunity for our state to advance equity, change systems, and deliver on the promise of the chance for every child to fulfill their potential.

However, if we don’t get the foundational early childhood pieces right, we’ll still be missing the mark for way too many children. North Carolina has long been seen as a leader in early childhood, and we have many programs that have been proven to be highly effective, like NC Pre-K and Smart Start. But these programs have been continuously underfunded, leaving behind children and families who could benefit the most and furthering inequities for children of color. To add to these challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the child care industry, and made all of the existing disparities even worse. The Leandro Plan is a policy roadmap for how we can invest in children, invest in families, invest in early education programs, and invest in our early childhood workforce.

Invest in Children
The science is clear – early experiences matter. Children’s brains are growing and developing at a more rapid pace in the first 3-5 years than at any other time in life. The connections formed during this time and the cognitive and social-emotional skills that are developed set the stage for future academic success. But beginning even before birth, children face inequities and systemic racism that impact their healthy development and learning, placing children of color and children in families with low income at a disadvantage from the start. In order to ensure that all babies and young children can thrive, we must ensure that all children have healthy beginnings, supported families, and quality early care and learning.

Invest in Families
Children don’t exist in a vacuum. Child care allows parents to work or go to school, but child care is hard to find and nearly impossible to afford. North Carolina is known as a child care dessert, which means that there are an average of 5 children for every 1 spot in licensed care. If parents do find a spot, the annual cost is more than a year of public college tuition. Child Care Subsidy Assistance and the NC Pre-K program are two ways that the state supports parents in affording child care, but at current funding levels, North Carolina is only serving a fraction of eligible children. Right now, there are almost 20,000 children on the waitlist for child care subsidy. Pre-COVID, that number was pushing 50,000.

Invest in Early Education Programs
Unlike K-12 public schools, child care programs are primarily small private businesses that operate on razor thin margins, even in the best of times, because high-quality child care is really expensive to operate. Programs typically rely on parent tuition for the majority of their revenue, but many parents can’t afford it now and definitely can’t afford to pay more. The public funding that child care programs do receive is often inadequate, inequitable and unstable, which limits their ability to expand access to children, particularly for infants and toddlers and children in low-wealth communities and rural areas. This unsustainable business model also leads to an untenable situation for child care teachers.

Invest in the Early Childhood Workforce
We know that the key to better outcomes for children is a high-quality early childhood workforce, but we are facing a workforce crisis right now – one that existed long before COVID. Child care teachers, who are overwhelmingly women and primarily women of color, make an average of just $12 an hour for the work they do to shape and mold the developing brains of our children. They are 7 times more likely to live in poverty than public school kindergarten teachers, about 40% of them rely on some form of public assistance, and 1 in 5 has no health insurance during a pandemic. Poverty-level wages without benefits is not much of a recruitment strategy.

Low workforce compensation not only impacts the teachers themselves, but it also makes it nearly impossible for child care programs to hire and retain teachers. This leads to fewer spots in fewer classrooms in fewer programs, meaning less availability and access for children and families. Child care programs can’t afford to compete with the Amazons, Targets and Chick-fil-A’s of the world, teachers can’t afford to work for less, and parents can’t afford to pay more.

The bottom line is that the child care financing system is broken.

The market approach simply doesn’t work, because parents can’t afford to pay for the full cost of care. We don’t ask parents to pay for the full cost of 1st grade, because it’s prohibitively expensive and because we, as a society, agree that public education is a public good. At the Coalition, we believe that early education is also a public good, and that it’s a key part of our state’s infrastructure. We have to work towards a future in which our system has adequate, equitable and sustainable funding, primarily through public dollars. AND until we reach this goal, we can still make a lot of progress towards building a stronger, more effective and more equitable system by investing in the policies and programs that are part of the Leandro Plan.

Things like increased funding for NC Pre-K, Child Care Subsidy Assistance, and Smart Start, to help improve access and affordability to high-quality programs in all 100 counties. Things like expanding early intervention services and home visiting to support healthy development and families. Things like scaling the Child Care WAGE$ program statewide to provide salary supplements for teachers, and exploring other ways to increase compensation and achieve pay parity in order to help build a pipeline of high-quality early educators.

Right now, early childhood makes up just about 1% of the general fund budget. Just 1% for programs that are critical to the success of our state’s children, families, and economy. The investments in the Leandro Plan are affordable, and they are urgently needed now. The stakes are high. We only get one chance – just a few short years – at early childhood.

Want to learn more? Click here to learn more about how Leandro impacts early education, click here to watch a legislative town hall about Leandro featuring remarks from Elaine Zukerman, and click here to get involved with our partners at Every Child NC to learn how you can #LeadWithLeandro.