General Education

How Preschool Works in North Carolina

How Preschool Works in North Carolina
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Noodle Staff September 2, 2015

A 5-minute guide to preschool and child care in North Carolina. Learn about licensing laws, instructor training, and enrollment requirements — everything you need to know to choose the right program for your child.

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Takeaway: North Carolina licenses and oversees center-based as well as home-based preschools, conducting regular inspections and encouraging excellence via its rating system. Early childhood education is a major statewide priority, and North Carolina offers three large-scale government-funded programs to provide access to preschool and pre-K. The state also offers fantastic tools for parents undertaking a child care search.


North Carolina has one of the highest rates of working mothers with young children, so early childhood care is a big priority for the state. North Carolina provides three government-funded initiatives that address early childhood education and care. The first is the Child Care Subsidy program, which combines federal and state grants to help low-income families access high-quality care programs. The second is the Smart Start program, which is a network of 76 local nonprofits that provide the infrastructure for early childhood learning and are funded through a combination of state funds and funds from the organization.

The third initiative is NC Pre-K, formerly known as More at Four, which provides full day pre-K to at-risk 4-year-olds. This program has been exceptionally successful; in addition to being one of only five state-run pre-K programs{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow"} that fulfill the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIERR) set of ten benchmarks for quality standards, the initiative has met with great success to date. Research shows{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow"} that third-graders who attend the NC Pre-K program develop academically at a faster rate than their peers.

In the last few years, funding for the first two initiatives has decreased, while funding for NC Pre-K has slightly increased. Overall, North Carolina has been relying on federal funds{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow"} for these early childhood education programs more than it has in the past.

North Carolina was awarded $69.9 million to use between 2012–2015 through the federal Early Learning Challenge. With the grant, the state is working on a variety of projects{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow"}; it is leading a consortium of states to develop new methods of assessing young children’s learning and creating an Early Childhood Directors Leadership Institute, among other initiatives.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services has a helpful website full of resources for parents who are selecting child care, including overviews, handbooks, and a checklist to bring along for tours of facilities. The state also uses a five-star system{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow"} that rates child care programs on the quality of the care they provide, giving one star to programs that meet the minimum licensing requirements and five stars to the programs with the highest quality. The main factors that affect a star rating are the staff’s education and the facility’s program standards. For more specific information, take a look at this rubric{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow" }.

Parents can also use North Carolina’s child care facility search tool{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow"}, which allows users to input information about what they are looking for (such as the location, facility type, and permit type) and read each facility’s contact information and inspection history.

Center-Based Care

In North Carolina, a child care is defined as either a residence where six or more children are being cared for or facility (that is not a residence) where three or more children are being cared for. The care must be provided for more than four hours a day on a regular basis.

For both types of child care centers, staff must undergo a background check, participate in a minimum of training hours, and have training in early childhood education (as appropriate for their position); at least one person must have CPR and first-aid training.

Each center must comply with a certain teacher-to-child ratio and maximum group size, both of which vary by child age. The required ratios are: 1:5 and a maximum of 10 children for groups under 12 months old, 1:6 and a maximum of 12 children for groups under 24 months old, 1:10 and a maximum of 20 for groups of 2-year-olds, 1:15 and a maximum of 25 for groups of 3-year-olds, 1:20 and a maximum of 25 for groups of 4-year-olds, and 1:25 and a maximum of 25 for school-aged children. When a center has mixed-age groups, the required ratio for the youngest child must be maintained. Small residence-based centers are often licensed to care for six to 12 children, and may sometimes be able to care for up to three additional school-aged children depending on the ages of the other children.

Additional requirements{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow" } regarding the amount of indoor and outdoor space, the type of curriculum, the health and safety of the children, and disciplinary methods are also taken into account when issuing a child care center license. Parents can find an accessible list of laws{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow" } they should be aware of when searching for child care centers. Centers that go above and beyond these requirements receive more than one star.

Child care center licenses are renewed annually by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services after centers pass at least one inspection visit (although more may occur if there are complaints lodged against a particular center).

Home-Based Care

Home-based care falls into two categories: family child care homes and child care centers that serve six or more children (mentioned above). Family child care homes can provide care for up to five preschool-aged children, including the provider’s own, and three unrelated school-aged children.

Providers at family child care homes must be over 21 years old, have at least a high school education, pass a background check every three years, and have a certificate in CPR and first aid. Additionally, any household members over the age of 15 must also pass a background check every three years.

To receive a license, family child care homes must comply with above-noted regulations concerning the health and safety of the home, the indoor and outdoor space, the kinds of snacks served, and the types of activities for children. The full set of rules and regulations can be found on the Department of Health and Human Services website{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow"}.

Licenses must be renewed once a year by the Department of Health and Human Services, and family child care homes are required to pass at least one inspection a year.

Unlicensed Care

Certain programs in North Carolina are allowed to operate legally without a license{: target="blank" }. License-exempt programs include recreational seasonal programs, instructional programs, drop-in care, informal arrangements, and religious-sponsored programs that opt for a Notice of Compliance.

Discover North Carolina preschools near you using the free Noodle preschool search, the most comprehensive tool of its kind.


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