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Free Public Pre-K Isn't Just For Low-Income Families In Mecklenburg

If you think of public preschool as free child care for the poor, you’re behind the times … at least in Mecklenburg County.

The county has opened registration for next year’s Meck Pre-K classes, and some families making six-figure incomes are eligible for the free program.

Two years ago, Mecklenburg County commissioners agreed to spend millions of dollars on a six-year plan for universal pre-kindergarten – eventually open to anyone who wants to take part. When it started, a family of four could earn up to $55,200 a year to qualify. Next year that will be up to $103,000 – and if all goes as planned, there will be no limit the following year.

This year, the county is spending $15.8 million to serve more than 1,200 4-year-olds. The plan calls for another $8 million to $10 million in next year's budget, to pay for about 650 more slots.

The county spends about 35% of its budget on K-12 education. County Manager Dena Diorio says it only makes sense to make sure children are ready to succeed when they get there.

"The Board of County Commissioners believes that this is an investment that has a long-term payoff for the community," she said.

Mind you, the county isn't waiting until these kids grow up to reap benefits. Thirty-seven child care centers with four- or five-star ratings participate across the county. In exchange for the influx of 4-year-olds and public money, those centers agree to hire teachers with qualifications comparable to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

"All of our teachers are bachelor-degree teachers," Diorio said. "They all have their birth-to-kindergarten license, and we have teacher assistants in those classrooms as well."

The schools agree to pay Meck Pre-K lead teachers on the CMS salary schedule, which starts at just over $41,000 a year. So the immediate economic benefits include parents who can afford to work, locally owned centers that get a boost and teachers who make a lot more than traditionally underpaid child care staff.

"We know it’s good for kids," Diorio said. "We know it’s good for families. We know it’s good for economic opportunity."

The county isn’t the only government body offering pre-K: CMS has Bright Beginnings, which screens children based on skills. The state offers an income-based program similar to Meck Pre-K, but its cut-off for a family of four is $52,500.

The three programs combined serve almost 6,000 Mecklenburg County 4-year-olds – just over half of the population. Diorio says the goal in six years is to enroll 80%, which would require about 3,600 more slots. Unlike public kindergarten, public pre-K is not mandatory, so officials estimate about 20% of families will want to keep their kids at home or enroll them in different programs.

"We’re trying to make sure that by Year 6 we have 9,600 slots for children who want to participate," Diorio said. "And of course, demand will continue to determine how much we scale up."

To be eligible next year, children must turn 4 by August 31. For details about registration, go to MeckPreK.org.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.