LEGISLATIVE BULLETIN: Investing in North Carolina’s Children Pays Dividends for Everyone

Early childhood programs such as More at Four  are needed now more than ever
By Dr. Stephen Jackson

•    Investing in targeted early childhood education has tremendous social benefits. These investments have proven to have significant positive economic impacts. A dollar spent today can save many more dollars later in welfare, education, health and justice-related expenditures.

•    More at Four is particularly important to low-income North Carolinians. This high-quality pre-kindergarten program is targeted at low-income children who are more likely to be at risk of later academic failure. North Carolina’s program ranks with the nation’s best, and helps thousands of low-income kids achieve later academic success.

•    Current proposals call for millions in cuts to Smart Start, More at Four, and state child care subsidy. Slashing or fundamentally altering programs proven to work is ill-advised, and lawmakers should re-affirm our state’s commitment to investing in children.

The best investment North Carolina can make is in our state’s children. Thankfully, our lawmakers have invested wisely in a few well-crafted, carefully targeted programs that give kids the best chance of success in school and life.

These programs, such as More at Four and Smart Start, have helped tens of thousands of families and won national honors. But now, with the state budget crisis, funding for these initiatives is in grave jeopardy.

Policymakers wanting to change programs that are working extremely well – Smart Start, the state child care subsidy, and More at Four -- should tread lightly. Not only do these programs improve life for working families, but all communities in North Carolina. Everyone has an interest in well-educated children. 

Despite volumes of research showing the programs’ achievements, More at Four and Smart Start are seeing ever-growing cuts with each new Health and Human Services and Education budget proposal.

This is the wrong approach. Not only is balancing the budget on the backs of lower-income children troubling, it will cause irreparable harm. Cuts affecting a child’s early education and well-being cannot be restored.

More at Four and other early childhood initiatives are building a North Carolina where every child, including low-income and at-risk youth, has a chance to succeed. This builds healthier, safer communities and prepares our state economy for the challenges of tomorrow.

All of the current early childhood budget proposals are disturbing but of special concern are budget cuts affecting More at Four, North Carolina’s nationally lauded education program for at-risk four-year olds.

North Carolina’s low-income and special needs children greatly need and greatly benefit from More at Four. No fewer than 85 percent of More at Four students are on free or reduced lunch. The other 15 percent exhibit other critical risk factors, such as a disability or chronic health condition.

The program works, is cost-effective, and produces impressive measurable results.
Multiple independent evaluations have found that children in More at Four are exhibiting significant growth in critical academic skills areas like reading and math. Successive reviews by UNC-Chapel Hill researchers have concluded that learning rates in More at Four classrooms exceed forecasts -- and that students who have special needs learn at the same rates, at least, as their classmates.

Teaching literacy skills to children before elementary school is vital, because reading is essential to later learning. The quality of More at Four literacy instruction is high and is continuing to improve. The National Institute of Early Education Research found that North Carolina’s More at Four program ranks equal with the highest in the nation with respect to program quality and standards.

High-quality pre-kindergarten programs targeted at low-income children are proven to have net economic benefits. A dollar spent today on More at Four can save many more dollars later in welfare, education, health and justice-related expenditures.

More at Four served around 32,000 children in 2008-2009. The demand is expected to grow significantly. It is projected that the population of eligible children will grow by 11 percent during 2009-10. One of the most recent budget proposals would cut as many as 6,000 slots from the More at Four program by 2010-2011.

In a time of fiscal crisis, legislators should look to preserve programs that give the state the most bang for the buck. Effective, targeted educational intervention for children cost comparatively little, while paying huge dividends.

At the very least, as lawmakers contemplate cuts in all program areas, changes to More at Four should be done so that classroom instruction quality is not compromised. If difficult budget choices are to be made, funding per slot should be held constant.

Besides More at Four, Smart Start and the state child care subsidy face cutbacks as well. This is unwise and shortsighted.

Though we sometimes hear that Smart Start and childcare subsidy cuts may be offset by federal stimulus money for the next few years, we must take the long view. Those federal dollars won’t exist forever, and child development should not take a back seat to financial or political expediency.

Years of experience and an impressive and persuasive stream of research all point to one conclusion: early childhood programs are a fundamental public investment, one that pays for itself many times over.

In the current uncertain economic climate, now is not the time to retreat from investing in young children. Today’s troubles should not lead us to actions that undermine our future.

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