NC Pre-K has governance issues; conflicts of interest exist in county committees

Current budget funds Pre-K program at $68.3 million in recurring funds for fiscal years 2021-22 and 2022-23

FILE - Kindergarten students wear their masks and are separated by plexiglass during a math lesson at an elementary school. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

RALEIGH — According to a former president of the North Carolina Licensed Child Care Association, there are serious governance and transparency issues with the program.

Kevin Campbell, who recently led Smart Kids Child Development Center, says there are problems with rules and within the program overseen by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Division of Child Development and Early Education (DCDEE).

Campbell says the purpose of the program is to provide high-quality educational experiences to enhance school readiness for eligible four-year-old children, but, “DCDEE in turn has side-stepped that responsibility by establishing a local committee for each county, which, among other things, are supposed to develop policies and procedures, pay providers and determine which operators get to have the classrooms.”

Big dollar figures are attached to Pre-K in North Carolina. The budget recently proposed by state lawmakers includes $68.3 million for N.C. Pre-K in recurring funds for fiscal years 2021-22 and 2022-23.

Campbell went on to say that the county committees are co-chaired by an appointee of the local schools’ superintendent and one from the local Smart Start Partnership, and that each county DCDEE then pays for a contract administrator who controls both the money and the information. The issue at hand in this arrangement is in many counties that administrator is the county’s school system and that those school systems also operate classrooms, which Campbell asserts is a conflict of interest.

“This means they can hand off contracts to themselves, and there is no oversight to stop it,” said Campbell. “This is a clear conflict of interest, created by DCDEE withdrawing itself from being accountable and kicking the can down the road to these county committees.”

Another area of issue is that outside private operators participating in the Pre-K Program are often last in line for consideration. Around 52% of Pre-K classrooms are in public schools and only 33% are in private childcare centers. The remaining 15% of classrooms are in Head Start sites.

Campbell said that the North Carolina rate for Pre-K providers is “extremely low,” generally coming in at $650 per child per month, with around 18 kids in a classroom.

A 2017 study on NC Pre-K produced by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), a unit of the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, shows the average cost per child for private pre-K is over $9,615 annually or just over $916 a month on a 10-month classroom work calendar.

Campbell sees county school districts “double-dipping” by taking advantage of their control of county committees to approve their own applications ahead of outside providers. However, he also pointed out that the rates of both public school and Head Start programs are lower, $473 and $400 respectively, but that both receive other funding; therefore, the total cost is actually higher for non-private facilities. Some 35 school districts are apparently receiving higher rates than the published rate. He said that there are exceptions to the published rates, but there is no clear reason given for why some counties are receiving additional funding.

Campbell said that in his experience with county committees there is a double-standard when it comes to district applications. He said that in many cases the applications are not even seen by the county committees, and the classrooms are assigned independently of the private sites.

According to Campbell, when renewal time comes around, the district sites are not reviewed nor are they turned down.

“I’ve never seen an application come through or a vote on the school systems program,” said Campbell, adding that district applications were handled “behind closed doors by the contract administrator” and that “it’s a double standard, for sure.”

The length of contracts and the application process also have issues according to Campbell.

“They [DCDEE] give multiple-year contracts. Most counties are doing two years, because that’s the minimum of a multiple. So they give them a two-year contract and then at the end of the two years, all of these providers are sweating whether they will be renewed or not,” said Campbell.

He went on to add that even if they’re performing excellently, they could lose the program contract. Campbell noted that the contract itself contains a clause that the contract can be taken away at any time for no reason.

“Providers, No. 1, aren’t paid much for this and, No. 2, providers don’t have any security,” said Campbell. “So, the legislature is trying to grow it [Pre-K], and DCDEE can’t even fill slots because of those two reasons.”

Per the Rutgers’ study, 34 out of 100 counties declined expansion dollars. In those counties that declined expansion dollars, nearly 6,000 children were eligible for NC Pre-K.

About A.P. Dillon 1251 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_