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Time for universal, free pre-K is long overdue

op fr“… the long-term benefits of a high-quality pre-K program can be substantial. These include higher high school graduation rates, lower rates of juvenile delinquency, less substance abuse, and higher adult earnings. Thus, many studies show that high-quality pre-K programs can improve outcomes for disadvantaged children in the short run and generate favorable returns for taxpayers in the long run.”

— Professor William T. Gormley Jr., Georgetown Public Policy Institute

Most parents who have the time and the education to take part in their children’s schooling remember well those first couple of years. Your child — with your help — was prepared for kindergarten, and then you worked with them as they learned to read and do simple math. Other children, however, came to school so unprepared that they demanded so much of the teacher’s time that it slowed the whole class down.

Truth is that most of those children who started out behind probably never completely caught up. Some barely graduated high school or even dropped out along the way, most destined for low-wage careers or perhaps dependent on the welfare system.

So Haywood County’s new pre-school program is welcome news. The expanded program will open up limited pre-K slots to more low-income families by offering affordable pre-K to those who are able to pay. Those who pay will help subsidize the program for those who simply can’t afford it.

Assistant Superintendent Bill Nolte said there is always a waiting list for the available pre-K slots in Haywood County that are funded by state and federal money. Even families who can afford to pay and want their children in these programs have trouble finding affordable, quality pre-K. 

As Nolte explained in last week’s Smoky Mountain News, increasing the available number of slots was a numbers game:

“Each pre-K class has two teachers and 16 kids. The school system had enough funding for a few more kids, but not enough to add a whole additional class.

But by padding the enrollment with kids paying their own way, the school system could round out the roster to make up a full class. And by spreading the private-pay kids around, the school system will actually end up with two more classes than it had before.

“I feel like we have really created something with nothing here,” Nolte said. 

Under the new model, six elementary schools will have an in-house pre-K class — compared to four currently — with 12 slots in each class for low-income children on subsidies and four slots for those paying private tuition.”

And the school system made a conscious effort to price the pre-K higher than that offered by some private entities. The school board did not want to create an unfair competition with private businesses offering a similar program. 

Over the years North Carolina has made grandiose efforts to get more children ready for kindergarten. Gov. Jim Hunt’s Smart Start was created in the 1990s and was followed by Gov. Mike Easley’s More at Four. Both were widely praised by early child education experts but eventually lost political favor in Raleigh.

Some ridicule these early childhood programs as too much government interference. But here’s the reality: more and more parents are spending more and more time at work. In 1976, 33 percent of families had two full-time wage earners; by 1998, according to the U.S. Census, the rate had risen to 51 percent; a 2014 study by Bright Horizons Family Solutions found that 80 percent of families have two working parents. 

This is simple math. The more both parents work, the less time is available each week to spend with your children. It’s not because parents don’t care, many just don’t have the time.

What’s disappointing is that as the modern family has changed so dramatically over the last 35 years, our political leaders have not taken the bull by the horns and taken steps to make sure our education system kept pace. Universal early childhood programs should be the rule, not the exception. Way to go Haywood County Schools for expanding pre-K.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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