The case of the disappearing $50 million

By: Tom Campbell - Contributing columnist

Every Saturday night, our family would gather ‘round the black-and-white TV to watch the latest “Perry Mason” episode. Before the hour was over Raymond Burr would have solved the mystery, always titled “The case of the … .” But not even Mason could solve North Carolina’s latest mystery in an hour.

Here’s the plot. This March, the Congress passed bipartisan legislation to provide states with $2.4 billion in funding for early childhood education. North Carolina’s share of that funding was $74 million. We have 50,700 children on a wait list for childcare assistance and advocates for children were excited that we would be able to provide more than 9,000 children an average of $5,600 per year, therefore making it easier for parents to work.

But a strange thing happened. Our state budget for early childhood education only increased by $25 million, causing raised eyebrows and more than a few questions as to what happened to the remaining $50 million of our state’s allocation. We need Perry Mason to solve the case of the disappearing $50 million.

Every reputable study we’ve seen underscores the benefits of early childhood intervention in lower socioeconomic and single-parent families. A dollar invested in those early years earns many multiples in dividends in later years. Children come to school prepared to learn, frequently with eye exams, hearing exams and physical examinations. They generally have fewer behavioral problems, learn to read and stay on grade level, and more remain in school and graduate on time. They seek more education or get better jobs, require less government assistance, avoid ending up in our criminal justice system and make more contributions as taxpaying citizens of society.

It begins with quality childcare. The average cost of childcare is more than $9,000 per year, or $750 per month, for parents. Even if the parent earns $15 per hour (the amount many say should be the state minimum wage) and works 40 hours per week, that amounts to only $2,600 per month gross income. Deduct from that gross income taxes, housing, food and clothing and it is easy to see how the $450 monthly subsidy per child (many have more than one child) can often mean the difference between being able to adequately provide for children or not. Our Republican-controlled Congress and Republican president obviously recognized this need.

The second part of the puzzle is also essential. Getting that 3-year-old in pre-k is vitally important to a successful trajectory in education and in life, yet full funding for our pre-k has taken a back seat to other priorities; our legislature only projects eliminating the wait list after 2020.

We can thank our legislature for the environment that resulted in a major budget surplus this year, however we cannot praise them for not using either the surplus or the $50 million in federal funding to significantly increase funding for early childhood education. True, we will be helping 3,700 more children, but that’s small potatoes when we’ve got almost 51,000 needing help.

Politicians love to talk about how important our children are. Our state leaders failed to give the same priority to our children that our Congress and president provided. As Eliza Doolittle sang in “My Fair Lady”: “Don’t talk of love, show me.”

Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion of NC issues that airs on UNC-TV. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.

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Tom Campbell

Contributing columnist