No issue provides more striking evidence of the failure of North Carolina's education system to serve our children than the "achievement gap." By "achievement gap," I refer, of course to that persistent gap in average scores on state and federal tests between students of color and white children and between children from low-income households and those from wealthier ones at every level of elementary, middle and high school.
While we tend to blame our high schools for many of these problems (the place at which the gap often comes to a head), around half of the gap is already present as kids enter elementary school. Minority and poor children arrive in elementary school relatively unprepared compared to their wealthier and white peers. Many can't count or identify letters. These are the foundations for learning. Starting behind, these children only fall further behind in later years. The odds of being held back a grade and dropping out before graduation shorten.
It therefore should come as no surprise that high-quality pre-kindergarten programs targeted at low-income, at-risk children have been proven in a succession of rigorous academic studies to have net economic benefits. A dollar spent today can save many more dollars later in welfare, education, health and justice-related expenditures. A "stitch in time" saves in some cases, at least nine.
Even more importantly, such programs can and do, literally, save lives. They do this by lifting children from impoverished circumstances and a childhood experience of frustration and misunderstanding to one of learning and social integration.
North Carolina has such a high quality pre-kindergarten program. It is called "More at Four." More at Four served around 30,000 children in 2007-2008, giving them early literacy, logic, numeracy, and social skills in a caring and supportive environment. Eligibility for the program is narrowly targeted at low-income and special-needs children. 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 childcare or pre-school setting prior to entering More at Four; nearly every one of these children qualified for free or reduced-price lunches.
A report released this month by Rutgers University's National Institute for Early Education Research declared the North Carolina initiative as good as or better than any such program in the country. North Carolina's was one of just two such programs in the nation to meet all 10 of NIEER's benchmarks on early learning standards and other program criteria.
Successive reviews by UNC-Chapel Hill researchers have praised the program and concluded that learning rates in More at Four classrooms actually exceed forecasts.
Unfortunately, in these tough budget times, More at Four is being targeted for cuts. It is a classic case of balancing the state budget on the backs of the poor; of being penny-wise but dollar foolish.
For instance, in order to draw down federal childcare dollars, the state Senate's proposed budget would change eligibility rules and add a requirement that parents work. This would effectively convert the program into a child care program.
This is an unfortunate attempt to put the cart before the horse. More at Four is not designed for parents; it is to protect and nurture children. Changes to eligibility rules need to protect child welfare first. What matters is the emotional and material existence of the child.
No doubt, the House will also propose budget cuts to More at Four. Any cuts should be done, however, in a way that preserves instruction quality, with good reason. A slew of studies have concluded that program effectiveness will be lost unless the classroom experience is a good one.
Finally, plans are also afoot to merge More at Four, administered by the Office of School Readiness in the Department of Public Instruction, with the state's Smart Start program, which is administered through Health and Human Services by the North Carolina Partnership for Children.
On the face, the merger appears attractive – with some potential administrative savings, and placing all the pre-kindergarten programs in one place. But the proposal is short on planning and long on uncertainty. Not only are there questions about the capacity of any merged entity to leverage federal dollars, but such a change could also jeopardize efforts to integrate pre-kindergarten services with the elementary school system.
A better approach would be to bring the stakeholders together so that experts can examine whether the idea is a good one and whether it serves the children the program is designed to nurture.
More at Four may not be a perfect program, but with its proven record of achievement in addressing some of our most vexing problems, it ought to be near the bottom of any list of budget cuts and "quick fix" policy changes.
Steve Jackson is a Public Policy Analyst at the N.C. Budget and Tax Center