Progressive Voices

Cuts to early childhood programming will be costly

Early childhood programming is the best and most cost-effective educational investment. This seems like common sense since the best and cheapest way to deal with a problem is almost always to prevent it from happening in the first place.

Unfortunately, the North Carolina General Assembly’s recently-passed budget makes inexplicable and disproportionately large cuts to More at Four and Smart Start, the state’s early childhood programs. Lawmakers also plan to move the More at Four pre-K program from the Department of Public Instruction into the Department of Health and Human Services. This will effectively reduce a high-quality early childhood education program into simple child care. To make matters even worse, the program would also new include fees that will make it inaccessible to those who need it most.

Sadly, thousands of children whose parents cannot afford high quality child care or preschool enter elementary school already well behind their peers before they have even reached the starting line. Once this achievement gap has opened, it is too expensive and time consuming to close. It persists until graduation and beyond.

Happily, More at Four has ensured that tens of thousands of children enter school on something akin to a level playing field. The program targets low income four-year olds who are at risk of later academic failure for high quality pre-kindergarten services. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, North Carolina is one of just five states in the nation whose early childhood programming meets all ten of their benchmarks for providing high quality early education, especially high teacher quality and smaller class size.

This high quality teaching and course of instruction is reflected in the numerous and unanimously positive evaluations of More at Four. Independent evaluations by Duke University’s Center for Child and Family Policy and the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at UNC Chapel Hill show that the quality of programming in More at Four classrooms is high and that More at Four students at greatest risk of academic failure exhibit the highest rates of learning growth.

More at Four and Smart Start provide substantial educational benefits to all students in areas where programming is offered – even to those who do not participate in the program. Third-graders in areas served by either program have significantly higher standardized reading and math scores and lower special education placement rates, saving the state millions in future educational spending.

These early childhood programs have been thoroughly evaluated fiscally. More at Four and Smart Start have been audited more than 450 times combined without a single negative finding of any significance. The North Carolina Partnership for Children, which administers Smart Start, has twice been awarded the North Carolina Treasurer’s Award for Accounting and Financial Management.

The long-term financial repercussions of the General Assembly’s cuts to early childhood programming will be huge. Timothy Bartik, one of the nation’s preeminent scholars on state and local economic development policy, used findings from the Duke University study on the impact of Smart Start and More at Four to estimate their long-term return on investment. Understanding that schools are not businesses and that the value of our children is priceless, Bartik’s study can be instructive.

He estimates that the state actually receives $8.79 in return for every $1 invested in early childhood programs. This is consistent with the findings of a consortium of economists led by Nobel Prize-winner James Heckman.

Unfortunately, lawmakers are adhering to their “pennywise, pound foolish” approach. It’s true that the early childhood cuts contained in the General Assembly’s budget will save $69.6 million this year, but according to the research of Bartik and many others, the cuts will cost the state a staggering $611 million in years to come. The costs of these cuts will pile up in the form of remedial education, increased special education placements, child care costs, lost wages and unemployment costs for parents who cannot afford child care, increased health care costs, decreased school achievement and consequential decreased career earnings, and criminal justice expenditures.

Additional confirmation of the legislature’s shortsightedness comes with the fact that President Obama recently announced that the federal government will be dispensing a half billion dollars in competitive “Race to the Top” grants to states that create comprehensive plans to transform and improve early learning systems. It is hard to imagine that the Department of Education will reward North Carolina with one of these lucrative grants if the state government dismantles the very programs the Department of Education is promoting.

In a state that will already be struggling mightily as it drops to 49th in the country in educational spending under the proposed budget, we simply cannot afford such losses. Let’s hope lawmakers reconsider their shortsighted actions before the damage becomes irreparable.

Matt Ellinwood is a Policy Advocate at the Education and Law Project of the North Carolina Justice Center

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