Pete Mills, Policy Intern at Think NC First

As the state debt—$107 billion by recent estimates[i]—continues to grow each year, policymakers must consider policies that promise to improve the quality of life for North Carolinians while reducing long-term government spending. No policy has greater potential to accomplish both than expanding the state’s preschool program to all four-year-olds.

Time and again, ambitious preschool programs have generated benefits that vastly exceed the costs. The Perry Preschool Project, a program that began in 1962 and focuses on giving children opportunities to explore a wide range of interactive projects, showed a 7 to 10 percent per year return on investment based on increased school and career achievement.[ii] Similarly, as previously covered by Think, half-day preschool programs for at-risk children in Chicago showed $48,000 in benefits to the public per child. Participants were more likely to graduate high school and less likely to have been held back, require remedial assistance or have been arrested. Overall, every dollar spent on these programs led to a seven-dollar return on investment.[iii]

As North Carolina fails to make the necessary investments in early childhood education, it falls behind states that have already prioritized universal preschool.

 Percentage of 0-4 year-olds served by state

Source: NIEER. The State of Preschool 2014.


In 2002, Florida created its Voluntary Prekindergarten (VPK) Education Program as a result of a constitutional amendment requiring preschool access for all of Florida’s four-year-olds. Florida’s preschool program is now the largest in the country, with over 175,000 total children enrolled.[iv] The program is very flexible, as parents can enroll their children in either a 300-hour summer program, which every school district must offer, or a school year program totaling 540 instructional hours. Florida also allows for many different providers beyond public schools, including licensed child care centers, accredited faith-based centers, and licensed family child care homes. Last year, 80 percent of all four-year-olds participated in VPK.[v]

While Florida has committed to universal access, it has not focused equally on the quality of its preschool programs. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research’s (NIEER) annual state preschool report, Florida’s VPK program only meets three out of ten of NIEER’s quality benchmarks. This is thanks to the state’s low total spending, which left Florida ranked 37th by this metric. According to NIEER’s estimates, Florida would have to double its per child spending to meet all of its quality benchmarks. Similar universal preschool programs in Vermont and Oklahoma also suffer from low per child spending. In expanding access, states cannot sacrifice quality. Otherwise, they will likely limit the long-term effectiveness of any universal program.

If North Carolina policymakers want to make the most out of universal preschool’s economic and fiscal potential, they need to focus on both quality and quantity. The NC Pre-Kindergarten Program (NC Pre-K) currently supports high quality preschool for four-year-olds from low-income families who have not participated in other early childhood programs. While the NC Pre-K Program ensures quality, it lacks the funding to reach every child who needs it. North Carolina is one of the only states that meet all ten of NIEER’s quality benchmarks, but it ranks only 24th for access and 14th in state spending.[vi] Last year, only 21 percent of 4-year-olds participated in the NC Pre-K Program, and state spending per child has remained stagnant since 2004.[vii]

State spending per child enrolled

Source: NIEER. The State of Preschool 2014.


State policymakers need to make a renewed commitment to the youngest North Carolinians. They can start by ensuring every four-year-old has access to a quality preschool program. Along with expanding access, they must retain the NC Pre-K Program’s high quality standards. Achieving both quality and quantity will require government investment, but every dollar will be well spent. No other policy option offers the opportunity for improving lives and economic outcomes with the efficiency of universal preschool. In setting up its youngest citizens for a lifetime of success, North Carolina can define for itself a future of prosperity and well-being for all.

[i] State Budget Solutions. (January 8, 2014). State Budget Solutions’ Fourth Annual State Debt Report. Available at

[ii] Heckman, James and Mosso, Stefano. (May 20, 2014). The Economics of Human Development and Social Mobility. Available at

[iii] NIEER. (December 2013). Expanding Access to Quality Pre-K is Sound Public Policy. Available at

[iv] NIEER. (2015). The State of Preschool 2014. Available at

[v] Ibid

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Ibid