Mecklenburg County commissioners went on record Tuesday, December 20, 2016 in support of early childhood education for all children 5 and under, but the unanimous vote steered well clear of spending commitments.

The hour-long debate revived an initiative then-Chair Trevor Fuller proposed in February, and followed the board’s acceptance in October of a $500,000 study of expanding access to pre-kindergarten education.

Universal access to such education, Fuller and experts say, is key to reducing achievement gaps and poverty while increasing graduation rates. Only 40 percent of third graders in Mecklenburg County read proficiently, according to the National Center on Education Statistics, a statistic that is a key indicator of economic mobility.

“To me, that’s unacceptable,” Fuller said Tuesday. “The evidence is that if you’re behind in third grade you’re likely to stay behind for the remainder of your school years.”

But enrolling all 69,000 children 5 years or younger in such programs would also cost many millions of dollars.

Vice chair Jim Puckett said the resolution Trevor proposed was premature.

The results of a two-phase study paid for by the Charlotte Executive Leadership Council, formed last year by some of the city’s top executives, aren’t in yet. The leadership council will collaborate with Mecklenburg County and its Economic Opportunity Task Force on the independent research study, which the county will oversee.

“I don’t understand why we would state that we support implementation of making sure that all 69,000 have early-childhood education without knowing the best way to do that,” Puckett said.

The board settled on wording that says it will develop a “community vision” for universal early-childhood education, including funding sources and a phased approach for achieving that vision.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools serves 2,850 4-year-olds through its Bright Beginnings program, and state money pays for 1,006 children of that age in pre-kindergarten programs. Only 556 children in the county are enrolled in the Head Start program, with 659 on a waiting list.

New York City, Denver, Colo., San Antonio, Seattle and Salt Lake City are among cities that have launched early childhood education programs.

Article Written by Bruce Henderson for The Charlotte Observer