How free pre-K for 600 Mecklenburg kids could affect your wallet for years to come.

How free pre-K for 600 Mecklenburg kids could affect your wallet for years to come.
Smart Kids teacher Diana Flores watches Neilyn Guerrero Alcaraz (left) and Sarai Hernandez build with Legos in a state-sponsored public pre-K class. The Smart Kids chain and other private centers will host more children in a Mecklenburg pre-K program that begins Sept. 24. (Diedra Laird | The Charlotte Observer)

The 4-year-olds who will launch Mecklenburg County’s new public prekindergarten program this month have no idea how much is riding on them.

County commissioners have put up $9 million to provide free high-quality pre-K for about 600 children this year. That investment from taxpayers could grow to $70 million a year by 2023, as Meck Pre-K expands to cover all who want it.

Short term, the program gives a boost to low- to moderate-income working parents, to the small business owners who run child care centers and to traditionally underpaid child-care teachers. Ultimately officials hope to set a generation of young people on the path to academic and economic success.

“All the research shows that students who have quality early childhood education do better in the work force in the future, and so it contributes to our whole economy,” said Latoya Scott, vice president of Smart Kids child care chain, which will host Meck Pre-K classes that open next week.

Meck Pre-K joins Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the state of North Carolina and the federal Head Start program in offering free programs to prepare Charlotte-area 4-year-olds for school. That’s part of a bigger investment that includes a growing subsidy program to ensure that low-income parents can afford high-quality child care.

All told, it’s a big move from a county anxious to shed its reputation as the worst place in the nation for breaking the generational cycle of poverty.

“This is hugely important and historically significant,” said Child Care Resources President Janet Singerman, who has spent more than 20 years trying to persuade the Charlotte community that care for young children needs to be viewed as essential education, not babysitting.

But the growth of public pre-K also poses some questions: Is the patchwork of government programs the best way to serve families, kids and the community at large? Are there enough licensed, qualified teachers to fill the demand? And how will the free programs affect families who still pay for care?

“If the program expands to 100 percent universal pre-K, that will put a lot of pressure even on schools like mine,” said Bill Mitchell, owner of the Primrose School in Charlotte’s Eastfield Village, where parents pay $250 a week — just over $13,000 a year — for 4-year-old care.

Who can benefit?

Dominique McMorris, a divorced mother of three, recently moved from Maryland to Matthews.

She drove for Uber, then found work through a temp agency processing medical tests. With her income unpredictable and her apartment costing almost $1,300 a month, there’s not a lot left over, she says.

McMorris had hoped to get her 4-year-old daughter, Lily, into NC Pre-K, a state program for 4-year-olds from low-income homes. But that program, which serves about 1,400 Mecklenburg children in child-care centers and public schools, has a waiting list.

“I have to go to work. For me to go to work she has to go someplace,” McMorris said.

She took Lily to the Smart Kids center near her apartment, where she’d normally have to pay $900 a month. To her delight, McMorris learned she was eligible for the new county program, which is still taking sign-ups.

As of this week, Meck Pre-K had filled about 220 of 600 available seats. Children who live in Mecklenburg County, turned 4 by Aug. 31 and have parents earning no more than 220 percent of the federal poverty level ($55,200 for a family of four) are eligible for classrooms that will be located at 20 private centers around the county (see accompanying box for details about applying).

Each Meck Pre-K class will have no more than 18 children, with an assistant and a teacher who has at least a bachelor’s degree. The lead teachers must either have a birth-to-kindergarten license or take classes toward earning one. Those teachers will be paid on the CMS scale, which starts at $40,615 for a new teacher and hits $50,000 with nine years’ experience.

The public pre-K classes follow the CMS calendar — they’re starting late this year as the program gets organized — and a school day lasts 6.5 hours. If parents need care before or after school hours or during CMS holidays, they’ll have to pay.

For McMorris, the program is perfect: It’s so near their apartment that her teenage son can walk his little sister to pre-K on his way to middle school. McMorris works an early shift so she’s home when pre-K is over. “It’s great,” she said.

A long road

The path toward universal public pre-K in Mecklenburg County has been a long one.

CMS became a pioneer when the district launched Bright Beginnings in 1998, adding 4-year-old classrooms to some public schools and supplementing a small federal Head Start program.

Bright Beginnings, paid for by Mecklenburg County and the federal government, pulled about 2,000 4-year-olds into free classes in public schools. Many of them came out of child-care centers where their parents had paid the bills. “That really put a hurt on centers,” said Kevin Campbell, Smart Kids president, who argued at the time for the district to work with private centers.

CMS leaders said no. They wanted to control quality and ensure that the children got a literacy-based curriculum.

In 2001 North Carolina rolled out its More at Four public pre-K program, renamed NC Pre-K in 2011.

The latest effort got its start in 2014, when researchers from Harvard University and UC-Berkeley ranked America’s 50 largest cities based on the chance that children from the lowest-income homes would move up to the top bracket. Charlotte came in dead last.

Business and government leaders created a task force to devise solutions, and Mecklenburg County commissioners agreed to tackle the early childhood challenge. A study group found that about 4,400 4-year-olds were getting free high-quality pre-K through Bright Beginnings, NC Pre-K or Head Start, with almost as many getting a subsidy to enroll their children in four- and five-star private programs.

But thousands more were on waiting lists for subsidies and/or free public pre-K. And a poll done in 2017 found strong public support for increasing access to high-quality programs, even if it meant a small tax increase.

The group’s recommendation: Invest almost $13 million in expanding subsidized pre-K this year, expanding to $70 million in 2023 to provide universal free pre-K (the cost would drop to just under $48 million if the county used a sliding fee scale).

Commissioners ended up approving $9 million for 600 children this school year, along with $6 million to provide subsidies for more children in private centers.

New program, new questions

When Meck Pre-K opens Sept. 26, it becomes the fourth public prekindergarten program operating in the county. It’s still recruiting children, a task that was slowed by the public focus on the slow, destructive march of Florence across the state.

While the programs have similarities, they also have key differences. Meck Pre-K, NC Pre-K and Head Start all screen based on family income, though the eligibility levels are different. For instance, a family of four can make up to $55,220 and qualify for Meck Pre-K, but the cutoff for Head Start for the same size family is $24,600.

Bright Beginnings admission is based on deficiencies in the skills needed for kindergarten, though many of the students also come from low-income homes.

NC Pre-K is based mostly in private centers but managed by CMS. County Manager Dena Diorio said county officials wanted to keep control of Meck Pre-K, where all classes will be in private centers, so the county can track data and ensure county control.

As rollout nears, plenty of questions loom:

Are there enough qualified teachers? “It’s going to be tight. We know that is a fact,” said Nancy Hughes, executive director of Meck Pre-K and Smart Start/Mecklenburg Partnership for Children. Her group is working with UNC Charlotte to recruit and train teachers with the qualifications required by the public programs.

Will parents sign up? So far classes have been slow to fill, though Hughes said she’s confident that will change as the program becomes known.

Will taxpayers support expansion? That will be up to county commissioners to decide year by year. On one hand, tax hikes and cuts to other programs are never popular, and it’s not clear that growth in county revenue would support a massive expansion. On the other, providing benefits to more affluent families could prove popular.

Will centers that don’t participate suffer? Mitchell, who runs the Eastfield Village Primrose School, said he doesn’t expect to see any immediate effects as the program starts small.

But if the public program grows dramatically, he said private-pay centers could lose the 4-year-olds who help subsidize care for infants and toddlers, who require even smaller classes. And centers that offer publicly-subsidized salaries on the CMS pay scale will have a strong edge recruiting qualified teachers, Mitchell and Smart Kids’ Campbell agree.

“As they progress through it they should take great caution to think of some of the unintended consequences and make sure to protect the child-care industry that really matters to people,” Mitchell said.

Despite the unknowns, Diorio says county commissioners made the right move launching Meck Pre-K.

“I think it’s one of the biggest things that we’ve done in this county for a long time,” she said.