Leaders from Buncombe County’s early childhood education community gathered to talk about challenges and opportunities during a Board of Commissioners workshop Sept. 26. No official action was taken, but commissioners heard updates on efforts to increase access to affordable preschool across the county.
“We know high-quality early childhood education is essential. And we know high quality is not inexpensive,” said early childhood education panelist Leslie Anderson. “It leads us straight to how can families afford it. How can providers at least make a small profit so they can stay in business? We must find a way to finance this,” she said, adding that the current trend is to find such funding at the local level.
But money is just one of the puzzle pieces not currently in place, as A-B Tech’s Jennifer Bosworth explained. “I see students living in cars. I have students who don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” she said, explaining that 76 percent of early childhood education enrollees at the community college are part time. Bosworth said that means it can take upward of 10 semesters for those students to earn a degree while scrambling for resources to secure their own lives. “We have to connect them to resources in our community so they can learn how to deal with their own trauma in order to guide kids. They have to have basic needs met prior to working with others.”
The community college is the only higher education campus offering an early childhood education program in Buncombe County, with Western Carolina University in Cullowhee being the next-closest option.
Meanwhile, the need for qualified early childhood care providers continues to rise. “We are finding it hard to find and recruit employees. People aren’t going into the field of education in North Carolina anymore,” said Dawn Meskill, preschool director for Asheville City Schools. The district provides early childhood education options, but staffing is becoming increasingly difficult at the same time ACS is trying to bolster its offerings in that field.
And over at Buncombe County Schools, Associate Superintendent Susanne Swanger says that squeeze might get tighter due to legislation from the N.C. General Assembly that will change student-to-teacher ratios. “As we enter next school year, we are facing a reduction of class size. It’s a fabulous idea but … we don’t want to say we don’t have room for Head Start because we have a mandate. We are concerned,” she said. BCS operates 15 Head Start classrooms across the county.
Members of the Asheville-Buncombe Preschool Planning Collaborative were also on hand to share their experience in working toward making preschool more accessible. According to an ABPPC survey, 91 percent of 600 families polled want access to early childhood programs. The group, formed in March 2016, aims to make affordable preschool options accessible to as many families as possible. Part of that mission means winning over people by arguing that the benefits of preschool go beyond the children served.
“It’s an economic development and workforce issue,” said Jacque Penick, ABPPC member and executive director of Verner Center for Early Learning. “Families have to have safe places for children if they are to be productive workers. We just don’t have enough spots to serve the children. The Verner waiting list for preschool is 350.”
Penick added that ABPPC research shows 72 percent of parents surveyed can’t send their children to preschool because the cost is prohibitive, noting that Buncombe County has one of the lowest preschool reimbursement rates across the state.
State Rep. Susan Fisher, a Democrat whose district spans most of Asheville, said reimbursement rates are an issue that she has been making a bipartisan push to resolve. “The formula is the real bugaboo. We can’t get them to change the way they look at funding for Buncombe County versus the rest of state. We need that formula to change. It’s been a nightmare,” she said.
Fisher further explained that the increased the cost of living in Buncombe County means child care providers charge less than market rate, leading to the reduced state reimbursements.
“I wait for the day we wake up to the necessity of universal preschool,” said Fisher. “How can we convince people through a [public service announcement] that they need to fund it, bring their children to it? … That’s fuzzy to me.”
Commission Chair Brownie Newman acknowledged that “to fully scale would take a ton of resources.”
Commissioner Joe Belcher wondered if accessible high quality is logistically feasible. “High quality is high cost. We have to be careful. This commission is not afraid to make tough decisions about cost. … As we look at this, we have to figure out how to get as many children involved as possible,” he cautioned.
High-quality preschool is defined by teacher-to-student ratios and certification levels of primary and support staff. The ABPPC study states that full-day, full-year preschool can cost more than $10,000 per year, per child. Amy Barry, executive director of the Buncombe Partnership for Children noted the balance between high quality and cost is something “we look carefully at,” adding that ABPPC is “trying to come up with something as economically feasible as possible.”
“When we talk about early childhood education and we are not doing anything about it … it’s costing us in health care, the job market, affordable housing. We are spending billions of dollars in America because we don’t have early childhood education,” said Commissioner Al Whitesides.
“I think about why I’ve been successful, and it’s because I had a good family background. All of it goes back to early childhood education. … We are at the point where we can’t afford not to fund it. We’ve got to wake up. To me, it’s common sense.”
Commissioners made no formal action concerning preschool. And at this point ABPPC is looking to secure community partnerships via funding, space and other potential collaborations. You can see its full report to commissioners here.
Earlier this year, Xpress ran an in-depth look at the logistics and potential costs of the issue in an article titled “Universal preschool access could help next generation thrive” which you can read here.