Universal preschool access could help next generation thrive

EAGER TO START EARLY: Citing research that shows early education bolsters a child’s chance for success, plus touting preschool’s ability to act as child care for working parents, supporters of the effort to make preschool universally accessible look to garner community support.
EAGER TO START EARLY: Citing research that shows early education bolsters a child’s chance for success, plus touting preschool’s ability to act as child care for working parents, supporters of the effort to make preschool universally accessible look to garner community support. Photo courtesy of Amber Greene Photography

A diverse group of influential local stakeholders is pushing for universal access to preschool in Buncombe County. Styling themselves the Asheville Buncombe Preschool Planning Collaborative, the members aim to make quality preschool accessible to all county residents. The group includes representatives of the Asheville City Schools, the Buncombe County Schools, the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, Mission Health, A-B Tech and Asheville City Council, among others.

Proponents say preschool gives children long-term educational, health, economic and other advantages that outweigh the considerable cost, and an extensive body of research supports those claims. But fully realizing this ambitious goal will take time and carry a substantial price tag (see sidebar, “Basic Arithmetic”).

Accordingly, the group expects to tackle the problem in stages. The first step, which the collaborative hopes to begin implementing next year, is targeting 3- and 4-year-olds from families that face barriers to accessing preschool. The group envisions a public-private funding model and stresses building on existing preschool infrastructure as well as creating new opportunities.

Money aside, the goal doesn’t seem all that controversial, but it’s too soon to tell how much financial support may be forthcoming. And though one county commissioner views the proposal as a way to make good on a campaign promise, another wants to see data before signing any checks. Even the project’s most enthusiastic supporters concede that both financially and logistically, the obstacles to achieving this ambitious goal are formidable — and to realize its full potential, the broader community will have to pony up.

Return on investment

Buncombe County Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara won her District 1 seat with a platform that was heavy on promises to help impoverished children. “In Buncombe County, we’ve got about one in four kids living in poverty, and preschool is a very concrete way to break that cycle,” she says. “It’s been tested and studied, and it helps kids, especially those from at-risk backgrounds. It helps them enter the educational system with stronger skills and helps with academic achievement over the years.”

In fact, she maintains, preschool actually saves money in the long run, providing “an 8 to 13 percent return on investment. Basically, kids are doing better over the course of their young and adult years, so less public funding is required to support other public programs they might need if they continued to be at risk.”

Commissioner Joe Belcher, however, is taking a tempered approach. “I have not been presented with costs associated with the program,” he notes, “and until I see that, I’m not going to be able to make a decision.” Still, Belcher recognizes the initiative’s potential, saying, “Not all of my kids attended preschool, but I think there are clear advantages to it.”

To Greg Borom, the director of advocacy for the Asheville-based Children First/Communities in Schools, “Investments in early childhood are truly investments. You’ve got to put the money in upfront to see the returns down the road.”

Children First is a partner in the collaborative, and Borom believes the county has both the desire and the existing infrastructure needed to move toward universal preschool access. “There’s a wide awareness across our community about the importance of early childhood investment,” he says. “Folks with young children are very attuned to the issues we have around access and affordability.”

Rachael Nygaard, Buncombe County’s human services planner, is equally enthusiastic. “We know it works: It’s effective,” she says, and the county “is 100 percent on board” with the idea.

Nygaard, who’s also part of the collaborative, says, “We see the need at several levels. Access to preschool programs is limited right now, based on availability as well as affordability, and this puts an extra strain on at-risk families. Kids that go through preschool programs go on to have more educational success, higher earnings, are less likely to rely on government assistance and have better math, reading, social and emotional skills.”

Dawn Meskil, preschool director for the Asheville City Schools, sounds a similar note. “There’s a compelling research base that supports the link between high-quality early learning opportunities and improved health, socio-emotional and educational outcomes for all children, particularly those exposed to a variety of risk factors.” The city system, she continues, “is committed to ensuring access to these opportunities for all children, and we believe this can only be achieved through community collaboration and partnership. We want all children to arrive for kindergarten ready and excited to learn, whether they participate in our program or another option.”

The city schools have their own preschool program, says Meskil, but “we know we don’t reach all early learners in our district, and expanding access to early learning opportunities is one of our strategic plan priorities. We believe a countywide initiative will benefit our incoming students as well as the entire community.”

Employment barriers

Child care is expensive. Last year, the average per child cost in North Carolina was $9,254, according to Child Care Aware of America, a national nonprofit based in Arlington, Va. By comparison, tuition at North Carolina’s public colleges and universities averaged $6,583 for the 2015-16 academic year, according to data from the website collegetuitioncompare.com.

The high cost of child care falls particularly heavily on people with limited means. A single parent with one child, notes the website, may spend 40 percent of her or his income on infant child care.

“Lack of quality child care is a barrier to employment,” notes Kit Cramer, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce and a member of the collaborative. “When a parent knows their child is well-cared for, they’re more focused and productive on the job. I know that from firsthand experience: It was one of the biggest stressors for me as a working mom.”

Small-business owner and collaborative member Jennie Eblen agrees that universal preschool would bolster the local workforce. Businesses, she says, understand that “employee productivity is essential for success. Yet I’m not sure the majority of business leadership is aware of the huge challenge employees with young children have in patchworking together child care.” And that issue, she continues, “directly affects their employees’ absenteeism and productivity. I’ve heard HR directors speak about the difficulty of recruiting young professionals to the region because of lack of affordable housing and access to child care.”

Furthermore, says Cramer, “I continue to hear the same complaints from employers about job applicants, largely around soft skills. I think investment in preschool, and even earlier in child care, may be a missing link to employability in the long run,” she says. “The brain research that’s been done on how babies develop is compelling: There’s a connection between what brain paths they develop and their soft skills later in life.”

OBSTACLE COURSE: The Asheville Buncombe Preschool Planning Collaborative aims to incrementally make preschool more accessible to Buncombe County residents. However, cost and finding enough qualified educators could present barriers to the plan.
OBSTACLE COURSE: The Asheville Buncombe Preschool Planning Collaborative aims to incrementally make preschool more accessible to Buncombe County residents. However, cost and finding enough qualified educators could present barriers to the plan. Photo courtesy of Amber Greene Photography

An incremental approach

The Preschool Planning Collaborative grew out of a 2015 discussion among a group of early childhood professionals, says Amy Barry, executive director of the Buncombe Partnership for Children. “We want to make sure we understand what families’ real needs are: what their barriers have been in the past and what kind of plan would successfully support their needs,” says Barry, who serves on the collaborative’s steering committee.

In searching for a template, she explains, they found Pre4Cle, a community-based plan that created an additional 1,215 preschool slots in Cleveland during the 2014-15 school year, according to its 2015 annual report. The Asheville group invited Pre4Cle representatives to visit here and share the fruits of their experience.

Following the Ohio organization’s lead, Barry says her group is “looking at the types of care that already exist: vouchers, the NC Pre-K program, Head Start and families that are paying for private child care. We want a system to integrate all those public and private providers so that families have choice.”

Betsey Russell helped lay the groundwork during Pre4Cle’s early days as an Asheville-based consultant, and is now a member of the collaborative. And though both organizations have similar goals, there are also significant differences, she points out. “Cleveland’s planning process was different than ours, because it was part of a larger city plan to improve education. The pre-K planners started out with a mandate, an initial funding stream and a deadline, so they completed their work in 90 days.”

The initial funding, notes Russell, “came, in part, from a local tax levy that Cleveland voters approved for school improvements, including pre-K.” The system now relies on a mix of federal, state, local and private dollars.

Those differences, says Barry, mean the Asheville project will have to proceed incrementally. “We’ve got to be realistic about the cost and the environment a provider has to offer,” she says. Accordingly, the goal is to start with kids ages 3 and older. Many 5-year-olds, however, already attend kindergarten, and others are enrolled in a preschool.

Million-dollar question

What all this would cost is still unclear, says Barry, but no one believes it will come cheaply. “Once we get the plan, we need to look at financing options. This would cost big money, and we see it as something that would be phased in over time,” she explains. “In Philadelphia, they used a sweetened beverage tax. There’s a range of options, whether it’s a hotel room tax or social impact bonds.”

Funding, concedes Cramer, “looks to be a big obstacle, and I understand there will be some polling of the public to see what might work or be agreeable. But it really depends on how many slots are funded, who is targeted for those slots and how they are targeted. I fully expect that any proposal will be a compromise on the ideal, because it’s expensive.”

Meanwhile, she points out, there are also lots of other projects seeking financial support. “There is always plenty of competition for funding, both public and private. And because the issue is expensive and complicated, there’ll be plenty of questions to be asked.”

Beach-Ferrara also thinks the initiative will need multiple funding streams. “In communities around the country that have made real strides,” she says, “the funding strategies that work best include public dollars and also high levels of engagement from the nonprofit sector, faith-based communities and, potentially, from the business sector.”

Further complicating matters, says Meskil, is the fact that the current system is already underfunded and overburdened. “So we are mindful about building this initiative sustainably and with assurances that the model is grounded in evidence-based practices and design.”

The N.C. Early Childhood Foundation hosts workshops that teach strategies for building community and financial support. In the Tar Heel State, “Local financing for preschool is in its infancy,” notes Executive Director Tracy Zimmerman. “I think we’ll see a lot of action here in the coming years as local communities drive innovation,” she predicts, adding that representatives of more than 20 communities across the state have attended her organization’s workshops in the last few years.

Still, Zimmerman says she’s hopeful. “There is tremendous support across the state to expand early childhood investments. A strong majority of Republicans, independents and Democrats want more investment in early learning,” she reports. In a 2016 poll of North Carolina voters, the Early Childhood Foundation found that 92 percent of respondents who identified as Democrats, 87 percent of independents and 70 percent of Republicans said they favored expanding state-funded early childhood education programs.

But Belcher, a Republican, has some reservations about where to find the money. “At this point, I would not want a referendum,” says the county commisioner. “I would not be afraid of seeking out funding at the state and federal level: That would be the first place I’d go. I’m not a fan of referendums.”

Workforce woes

There’s more than one dimension to the money question, however. Even if the project were fully funded, expanding preschool offerings means hiring more staff — and qualified preschool teachers aren’t easy to find, says Anna Carter of the Child Care Services Association. “We certainly hear the concerns about being able to meet the demand of having a qualified teaching workforce,” says Carter, who is president of the Durham-based nonprofit. “We’ve seen declining enrollment in early childhood degree programs at most community colleges across the state.”

The biggest factor, Carter maintains, “is that early childhood educators aren’t compensated at a level that’s commensurate with their knowledge, skills and competencies.” Statewide, a 2015 study by her organization found, early childhood teachers averaged $10.97 an hour, and assistants made just $9.97. But the 12 westernmost counties (including Buncombe) fared better: Teachers averaged $13.12 and assistants made $10.25, the highest averages in the state.

Nonetheless, says Barry, compensation is still a major issue in a state where 39 percent of early educators qualified for public assistance in 2015. “We are currently struggling to find qualified early educators to fill positions; this is an issue statewide, but we’re feeling it acutely in Buncombe County. Many don’t see early childhood education as a viable career because of the low wages, which makes it difficult to recruit people to enter the field.” In addition, she explains, “Low wages for critically important but demanding and stressful work means that it’s hard to retain educators.”

It’s an extremely difficult balancing act, however. “This is not to fault child care employers,” stresses Barry. “They cannot charge rates that are so high that they price parents out, with so many parents already struggling to pay private rates. Parent fees are private child care providers’ main source of income.”

Pulling the trigger

Despite all these challenges, other communities have managed to incrementally and intentionally implement universal preschool, collaborative members point out. And that fact, coupled with the influential organizations that are passionate about the project, could ultimately tip the balance. To get things rolling, the collaborative hopes to release a first draft of its intentions sometime in May.

“It starts as a moral mandate,” Beach-Ferrara asserts. “How do we make sure every kid born in Buncombe County has a chance to thrive?”

But Belcher, her colleague on the Board of Commissioners, isn’t ready to commit. “They’ll have to … present the advantages and costs associated with it,” he says. “If this allows families to stay at work and allow their kids to have exposure to early education, I think that part will be good. But we’ll have to weigh the costs.”

Borom, meanwhile, believes the project could become a calling card for the area. “To me, Buncombe County becomes a place where children in the preschool range have a multitude of options,” says the Children First staffer. “I’ve got big dreams. Hopefully, Buncombe County becomes even more child- and family-friendly, part of a multitude of efforts that make Buncombe County a great place to be — and raise — a child.”

Specifically, says Barry, “Maybe August 2018 we begin small-scale, concrete expansion and try to rev up from there. We know how critical it is for kids to get the right start. We know what it takes, how to do it. We just have to get the public will behind it and actually do it.”

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About Dan Hesse
I grew up outside of Atlanta and moved to WNC in 2001 to attend Montreat College. After college, I worked at NewsRadio 570 WWNC as an anchor/reporter and covered Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners starting in 2004. During that time I also completed WCU's Master of Public Administration program. You can reach me at dhesse@mountainx.com.

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