Durham PreK Community Spotlight
For the next few issues of Durham PreK Community Connections, we will check-in with our elected officials about Durham PreK. This issue we talk with Durham County Commissioner Heidi Carter.
Ms. Carter, as a former Durham School Board member you have long been a champion of education and a supporter of services for our youngest children. What is your view of Durham’s commitment to public preschool?
I feel strongly that this investment in young children is the most important initiative that Durham County has underway right now. We began working on this when I was a member of the school board, so I have felt connected to it from an early point. The initiation of this process and programming started with not just the educators and School Board, but with the County Commissioners and the City Council, too. Typically, people may not think of the City Council as being engaged with issues related to education, since it is generally a County responsibility—but in Durham, the broad, widespread benefits of high-quality pre-K are recognized. Those benefits transcend City – County responsibilities.
We know there are profound impacts on children and communities from having access to high-quality early education. We know through the results of many preschool studies, including the historic Perry Preschool Project and the Abecedarian Project. These research studies, on participants who are now adults, demonstrated that access to high-quality preschool is correlated, not only with improved success in school but with boosting the economy and increasing the long term earning potential of those who participated in the programs. The research showed that access to high-quality preschool decreased crime in the community, likely because the program led to participants’ greater success in life.
Durham PreK is a program that hits many of our crosscutting goals and I could not be happier that Durham is investing in it.
Do you have expectations about the outcomes for Durham PreK?
I hope we will have more children and families connected with a high-quality preschool opportunity. The Supply and Demand study that Child Care Services Association completed for Durham [in 2018] revealed that there are many children, particularly children of color and children from our low-income communities, who do not have access because the number of seats in publicly supported preschools is not adequate to meet the demand.
I also expect we will see access to a higher quality program because Durham PreK is about improving quality—some of the local funding is targeted at providing technical assistance on a weekly basis to these classrooms to boost the quality.
In addition, we know that many of our preschool teachers are underpaid, and we want to pay them commensurate with our public school teachers. Because of this, our public tax dollars are helping to supplement the wages of our Durham PreK teachers. I expect that both access and quality will improve in our community based upon the investments Durham is making. The research shows that quality is what will lead to lifelong success for our children.
I think that this program will provide a more equitable start for our children in Durham. As we try to center our decisions on racial equity, I feel that investing in Durham PreK is a great example of an investment in improved racial equity. Too many of our children of color do not currently have the opportunity to attend a great preschool before going to kindergarten. Ensuring our African American and Latinx children have access to high-quality programs will give them an extra benefit. We are trying to work a little harder to help those who need it the most.
We hope that the local investments made by Durham will help inspire North Carolina to make more investments in public preschool. Do you see that in the future?
Yes, I certainly hope so! North Carolina should be paying for more of this education. This is an evidence-based intervention that we know is important. We feel it is the right thing to do, so Durham is stepping up. Ultimately, this is a constitutional responsibility of state government.
The landmark Leandro court decision and recent report indicates that our state is not meeting the constitutional requirement to provide a sound, basic education for all children. One of the Leandro recommendations from 20 years ago was to expand the number of state-supported preschool seats. The expansion of state-funded preschool has not happened nearly fast enough in North Carolina
What are your thoughts about where you see Durham PreK in five years? Do you see this as a long-term investment?
Yes, I have never seen it as anything other than a long-term investment. I hope we will see more children attending preschool in classrooms with awesome teachers who have benefited from Durham PreK technical assistance. I hope we see more children arrive in public kindergarten fully ready to maximize their potential. I hope we will see universal acceptance of the program so that we have preschool classes with children from all backgrounds and demographic groups going to school together.
Then, I hope that will transfer over to our public schools—that families will see the opportunities available in the public preschools and will perhaps be more open to embracing our public schools for K – 12, especially if we have Durham PreK in all of our public elementary schools. Ideally, in the next five years, we will have some public preschool in all of our DPS elementary locations. The County will have a role to play in funding to make our public elementary schools able to meet the preschool facility requirements.
Do you have any other thoughts you would like to share about the development of Durham’s PreK initiative?
I am excited that this very important effort that began because members of the community were asking for it. I am proud that our three elected governmental bodies [school board, city council and county commission] came together around it and commissioned a volunteer task force to get input and guidance to make this program a reality. It is gratifying to see the process from the beginning to where we are now—and where we are going in the future. I like our mixed model of delivery that provides so much potential for Durham. A community-based solution like we have in Durham will assure our success.