Mecklenburg County is considering a $77 million investment in public preschool. Here’s how it would work

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Mecklenburg County is in the early stages of an ambitious project to get more children in high-quality preschool programs.

In the short term, it would help low-income families who struggle to find affordable daycare. Eventually, it could create a universal pre-K program that touches every 4-year-old in the county.

There’s a lot still unanswered — like where all the new preschool classrooms would be, how much affluent families would be asked to pay to attend, and how it would impact the private daycare market.

But it’s clear the plan would increase taxes substantially to pay for it all.

You’ll want to keep this on your radar screen.

Where did this come from?

County commissioner Trevor Fuller began to spotlight gaps in early childhood education last year, beginning with his state of the county address (at the time, he was chairman of the board).

He linked the effort to the work done by the Opportunity Task Force, which itself was a response to studies showing that Mecklenburg County ranks near the bottom nationally in areas where people born in low-income families have the chance to rise to the middle class.

There is plenty of evidence that disparities start early. Low-income children disproportionately enter kindergarten unprepared for learning.

Former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Heath Morrison once told me that many children come to school not knowing how to even hold a book. Often, these kids are never able to make up the gap throughout their public education.

Last fall, Fuller announced that a group of Charlotte-based corporate executives had agreed to fund a $500,000 study to examine how universal public pre-K could be implemented locally.

[Agenda story: Charlotte gets the corporate community behind working on economic equality after protests]

That study just wrapped up.

Trevor Fuller, appearing in October

How many kids are in childcare?

Right now, there are roughly 71,000 children under the age of 5 living in Mecklenburg County. Three-quarters of them have working parents, meaning there’s a need for some type of childcare during the day.

Nearly half of those children — about 22,000 — come from low-income families who are eligible for assistance in paying for childcare.

Childcare isn’t cheap. The average cost for a year of infant care is $11,700. For 4-year-olds, it’s $10,296.

Another number to keep in mind: There are about 12,000 4-year-olds each year in Mecklenburg County.

What childcare supports exist today?

There are four main programs available to help families with childcare.

1) Childcare subsidy program

This is the biggest one today. Families making less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for help in paying for a slot in a certified daycare program. For a family of three, this equates to an annual salary of $41,000 or less, or $49,200 for a family of four.

Families pay 10 percent of their gross income toward child care, and money from the state and county pays the rest.

Number of kids served: 4,164

2) Bright Beginnings

This is a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools program created in 1998, with funding supplemented by the county. This free public pre-K program is for 4-year-olds determined to be at-risk for not meeting academic benchmarks. Its classrooms are in existing CMS schools.

Number of kids served: 2,800

3) NC Pre-K

This is another free public pre-K program, but kids at these programs go to one of 23 private childcare centers around the county.

Families must make below 75 percent of the state median income to qualify, which is $42,112 for a family of three or $50,133 for a family of four.

Number of kids served: 1,006

4) Head Start/Early Head Start

This is a federal program that places children in extremely low-income families in one of 16 childcare facilities in Charlotte.

To qualify, a family of three would earn less than $20,420 per year, or $24,600 for a family of four.

While it reaches the families in greatest need, it is also the smallest.

Number of kids served: 803

Are these enough?

No. The waiting lists for these programs are as big (or bigger) as the number of kids in them.

  • Only 5 percent of the county’s 15,759 children who are eligible for Head Start or Early Head Start have a slot. More than 1,600 kids are on a waitlist.
  • About 19 percent of the 22,107 children eligible for childcare subsidies receive them.
  • About one-third of the 12,000 4-year-olds are in public pre-K.

Many of the children who don’t get into these programs receive good care and education from relatives, or their families scrape up enough money for childcare without subsidy.

But many others aren’t learning the types of things they would at a licensed childcare center with qualified, certified teachers.

What’s on the table?

The consulting firm recommended three main steps for the county commissioners to take.

1) Increase funding for childcare subsidies to clear the waiting list.

2) Create a universal pre-K program to serve all 12,000 4-year-olds. This would phase in over six years, starting with low-income families before expanding to everyone.

3) Increase pre-K teacher pay. This would make pay comparable to public school teachers and include retention bonuses.

How much would this cost?

A lot. Just step one would take $28 million per year.

The second step could raise the total to $77 million or $100 million per year — depending on whether the county opts to charge families for pre-K based on their income or make it all free.

How would we pay for it?

Great question. It would take a tax increase.

Two potential tax money sources were put on the table, and the final proposal could include a combination of the two.

1) Quarter-cent sales tax increase. This would bring in $50 million per year, but would require approval from the voters by way of a referendum.

2) Property tax increase. Each penny increase brings in about $12 million and costs taxpayers $21 per year on a house valued at about $200,000.

If you do the math, using property tax alone to fund the childcare programs would cost between $135 and $175 extra per year for somebody with a $200,000 house.

What are the next steps?

There’s still a lot to be done before anything comes to a vote. The next phase involves designing a specific program, totaling up startup costs and writing RFPs.

A lot of questions remain unanswered. Would the county be opening its own childcare centers? Would they be housed within CMS? Would families get some sort of voucher for their 4-year-olds? What would the fees be for affluent families?

All that, presumably, would come next.

What are the chances this happens?

I think at least something will be done. The entire board appears to believe that there are needs in Mecklenburg County for more support of early childhood education.

But there is also deep skepticism of this proposal, especially with this large a price tag.

“I’m not sure money is always the answer,” commissioner Vilma Leake said at a September meeting, and she referenced the $55 million program called Project LIFT designed to boost west Charlotte schools that’s had disappointing results.

2018 is an election year for the county commissioners, so don’t be surprised if a tax increase gets pushed off until after ballots are cast.

But plan to hear a lot more about this between now and then.

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Andrew Dunn
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