Proposed funding, eligibility and administrative changes risk undermining the program's success, says a new NC Justice Center study
Current legislative proposals to alter the administration, eligibility criteria and funding levels of More at Four, North Carolina's nationally lauded education program for at-risk four-year olds, risk undermining one of the state's best investments in the future, a new report says.
"The More at Four program prepares kids to succeed in school and in life. It is universally recognized as one of the most effective programs of its type," said Steve Jackson, a policy analyst with the NC Justice Center's Budget & Tax Center and author of the report. "This is an absolutely critical program that helps the neediest North Carolinians, and one that pays for itself many times over."
The state's More at Four program provides free, high-quality preschool to tens of thousands of at-risk 4-year-olds. Proposed changes currently under consideration include cutting program funding, changing rules for who is eligible and altering the way More at Four is administered.
Any such changes, Jackson writes in the report, carry risks. Policymakers should ensure that any changes "need to protect child welfare first," he said, and refrain from hasty action.
The state's More at Four program has won national honors. A report released this month by Rutgers University's National Institute for Early Education Research declared the North Carolina initiative as good or better than any such program in the country. North Carolina's was one of just two More at Four programs in the nation to meet all 10 of NIEER's benchmarks on early learning standards and other program criteria.
The program served around 30,000 children in 2007-2008, with eligibility narrowly targeted at low-income and special-needs kids. Three-quarters of enrollees come from families with incomes at or below 130% of the federal poverty level and therefore qualify for free lunches. More than half of the children served in 2007-2008 had never been in a formal child-care or pre-school setting prior to entering More at Four; nearly every one of these children qualified for free or reduced-price lunches.
Targeted programs like this one, said Jackson, are proven to produce extensive economic and social benefits.
"High-quality pre-kindergarten programs targeted at low-income children at risk of later academic failure are proven to have net economic benefits," Jackson concludes in the report. "A dollar spent today can save many more dollars later in welfare, education, health and justice-related expenditures."
But the proposed changes could harm needy children, and significantly undermine the benefits all North Carolinians gain from the More at Four program.
"Policymakers wanting to change More at Four should tread lightly," Jackson writes. "Any changes to eligibility rules need to protect child welfare first … Changes to budgets should be done so that classroom quality is not affected."
Furthermore, the "[administrative] change process should be examined carefully before administrative changes and mergers with other programs are made in order to properly assess any costs and benefits. Acting in haste now, especially considering the minor short-term savings may hurt child welfare. Using any merger as a process by which to initiate cuts to More at Four should be rejected."
The report is available online now at http://www.ncjustice.org/?q=node/245 .