Progressive Voices

The Governor’s sensible pre-kindergarten plan

In June, Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning issued a decision in the long-running Leandro litigation over the state’s public education system. The judge found that the General Assembly’s 20% cuts to pre-kindergarten services for at-risk students violated the state’s constitution. Manning’s directive was quite clear:

“The State of North Carolina shall not deny any eligible at-risk four year old admission to the North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten Program (NCPK) and shall provide the quality services of the NCPK to any eligible at-risk four year old that applies.”

Other than filing an appeal to get out from under the judge’s order, however, (an appeal that is currently pending) the leaders of the General Assembly have pursued an equally clear course of action: inaction. Inaction in the days that followed the ruling, inaction after Governor Perdue issued an executive order directing the General Assembly to comply with the ruling, and inaction after the school-year started and services began without adequate funding or guidance on how to comply with the ruling.

Meanwhile, despite a forced and questionable transfer of their entire program from the Department of Public Instruction to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), NCPK providers have done an amazing job of providing the same high quality, no-cost services as in the past. Unfortunately, however, they have had to cut 20% of seats (more than 6,000) to keep quality high. They have reduced their staff and cut administrative expenses to try to keep costs down as best they can.

Recently, after more weeks of inaction and uncertainty in complying with Judge Manning’s ruling, Governor Perdue and DHHS have put forth a plan to comply. The plan would allow NCPK to serve as many students as it did last year and would restore funding so that more than 6,000 additional students could attend NCPK beginning in January. The Governor proposes appropriating $27 million in what amount to surplus funds from the Fiscal Year 2011 budget, and $3 million from the “Contingency and Emergency” funds which are earmarked for things like litigation. She has called on lawmakers to appropriate the funds as soon as possible.

This plan still would come short of Judge Manning’s directive, but it is a reasonable and necessary start.

Gov. Perdue and DHHS also outlined a plan to expand NCPK to all at-risk students over the next five years. Some legislative leaders have complained about the cost of providing this service to so many students as it may range upwards of $300 million over that period of time. Of course, those critics do not mention that the General Assembly has cut over $400 million from education over the past three years, not even accounting for inflation or increases in the student population. It is but a small price to pay to comply with the constitution.

Indeed, it’s likely to be a sound investment.

Timothy Bartik, one of the nation’s preeminent scholars on state and local economic development policy, used findings from a Duke University study on the impact of Smart Start and More at Four (now NCPK) to estimate their long-term return on investment. 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. It is hard to imagine a more deserving and cost effective educational program to invest in.

Pre-kindergarten is an idea whose time has come. Once a rare type of state service, pre-kindergarten is now offered in some form in more than 40 states. That school started in kindergarten for most of us at age five is merely a historical accident – an anachronism that has persisted in our system as so many do.

We now know much more about how the brain develops and how students learn than we did when the school schedule was established many decades ago. Indeed, the science around pre-kindergarten is clear.

Everyone from teachers to educators to neurologists to acclaimed economists agrees that these early interventions help close the socioeconomic achievement gap and provide many other long run benefits such as reducing the number of students classified for special education services, improving graduation rates, and even reducing the number of students entering the school-to-prison pipeline.

Happily, this truth has now become apparent to Governor Perdue and Judge Manning. Let’s hope state lawmakers – fresh off of a legislative session marked by shortsighted cuts that brought the issue to a head in the first place – arise from their post-session slumber and wake up to this truth as well.

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

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