Mecklenburg County could help send your 4-year-old to pre-school – but it would come with a tax increase.
Commissioners Tuesday discussed whether to start a program to offer subsidies so every 4-year-old can attend pre-kindergarten – and how it could be paid for.
A task force has been studying for nine months how an expanded pre-K program would work, and made several recommendations this week. But it will be up to commissioners to decide whether they want to move forward with universal pre-K, as places like Tennessee and Florida have done.
North Carolina also has a state-funded pre-K program, but it’s for families making 75 percent or less of the state’s median income. For a family of four, that’s $52,500.
The tentative plan would be a subsidy for parents depending on how much money they make. Residents over a certain income level wouldn’t get any financial help. Someone far below the poverty line would likely get their tuition paid for.
“It would be based on income, and based on family size,” said Grace Reef of the Early Learning Policy Group, which worked on the task force. “A millionaire would pay full tuition.”
Reef said it’s unclear how parents would use the financial aid. Could the money help pay for an expensive private school? Or a church school?
“That would be determined in the design phase,” she said. “The idea would be to have high-quality programs.”
If commissioners move forward, Reef said the Mecklenburg program would be the state’s largest for pre-K children. Buncombe County, home to Asheville, is also studying how to expand pre-K access.
As Mecklenburg tries to improve economic mobility for its poorest residents, early childhood education is seen as a way to give low-income children a boost.
The report found there are about 12,000 4-year-olds in the county.
Few of those children are served through the federal program Head Start or receive some other sort of child-care subsidy. Of the nearly 22,000 eligible children under 5 who are eligible, just under 20 percent receive child-care assistance.
The study recommended the county first clear a child-care subsidy waiting list that’s just under 4,000 children. That would cost $28.3 million in each of the next six years. Reef said the waiting list is made up of parents who qualify for state and federal subsidies, but have been unable to get them because there isn’t enough money.
After that, in the first three years of the program, the county could begin helping 812 children a year. In the next three years, the county would expand the program to help 1,372 additional children a year. The program would also spend money to improve the pay of pre-K teachers. It could also cover transportation costs.
By the sixth year of the program, it would cost $77.4 million annually. That would cover 6,555 children.
The study said commissioners should consider two ways to pay for pre-K. One is a sales tax increase of a quarter-cent, which would have to be approved by voters. That would raise $50 million a year.
Another option is to increase property taxes. Increasing the county’s property tax rate by one penny could raise $12 million a year. For the owner of a house valued at $208,000, they would pay an additional $21 a year.
Some commissioners were skeptical.
Democrat Vilma Leake said she likes the idea, but isn’t sure if the program would produce results.
“The earlier you train children or get them exposed to education, the better they come out,” she said. “But I’m not sure money is always the answer. $55 million has been put out for Project LIFT and the kids are still failing.” Project LIFT is a philanthropic effort to improve student achievement at West Charlotte High and schools in its feeder pattern.
Democrat George Dunlap said he is worried that pre-K gains would be erased if children lost interest in school as they grow up.
“Something happens in the fifth grade, and all of this goes away,” she said.
But Democrat Trevor Fuller urged his colleagues to move forward with the idea.
“All the evidence shows that if we focus our investment in the early years we get returns,” he said. “If we are trying to address economic opportunity, this is one of the best ways.”
Commissioners are expected to discuss the proposal more this fall.