Education research clearly documents that investments in early childhood programs are among the smartest investments that states can make. It is time now for policy makers from both parties in North Carolina to come together to reaffirm what previous policy makers in this state have well understood: That we must invest in our young children today not only because it is the right thing to do for them but because it is the right thing to do for our state.
North Carolina has long been a leader in early childhood programs. Starting in the early 1990s, then Governor Hunt led a crusade to address the many challenges facing young children in this state, and for 15 years the state’s Smart Start Initiative and, later, its More at Four Program were recognized as models for other states.
Over the years, various studies by the Frank Porter Graham Center at UNC-CH have documented how these initiatives have helped young children and their families address challenges such as poor health, low-quality child care options, family dysfunction, and lack of readiness for school.
Along with our Duke colleague Kenneth Dodge, we have recently expanded that research by looking at the communitywide effects on third-grade outcomes of the Smart Start initiative aimed at children aged 0 to 5 and the More at Four program that funded slots in high-quality settings for at-risk four-year olds. Our community-wide approach recognizes that the state funding associated with these initiatives may generate benefits not only for the children who directly participate in the funded programs but for other children as well, perhaps through the availability of higher quality child care and pre-school options. The programs also contribute to better learning environments by having more students in elementary school classrooms who are academically prepared, attentive, and less disruptive.
In the first of our studies (forthcoming in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management) we find that children who were lucky enough to be the right age to benefit from the introduction and expansion of either one or both of the programs performed better on third grade tests than their counterparts who were born too early to benefit or who experienced lower levels of state funding. The effects on math and reading test scores are quite large and are equivalent to the effects of about two to four months of instruction in third grade. Moreover, the benefits were larger for children from disadvantaged families. In a second study still in progress, we find that Smart Start and More at Four each significantly reduced the probabilities that children would be placed in special education programs as of third grade. Because special education programs are far more costly than regular education programs, the reduced rate of placement as of grade three could save the state substantial amounts of money.
Early childhood programs are always good investments, but are especially important for North Carolina at this time given our distressingly high rate of child poverty. Currently, about 26 percent of the state’s children are living in families with income below the poverty line. Yet, the number of state-funded slots for at risk four-year olds is now at 27,500, a full 20 percent below its level in 2009. How can this be a sensible policy for North Carolina? It is time to stop the decline and to start reinvesting again in our state’s youngest children.
Such investments cannot, alone, close achievement gaps. Nor can high-quality pre-k programs fully inoculate children against the damage wrought by the under-resourced and poorly staffed schools that serve many of our most disadvantaged students. Nonetheless without such investments, efforts to improve those schools may well be wasted. We must embrace broad strategies that, along with improving the quality of the schools that disadvantaged children attend, ensure that children enter school ready to learn. To do any less is to waste one of our most precious resources for our future, the youngest among us today.
Helen F. Ladd is a Professor of Public Policy and Economics, Sanford School, Duke University and co-chair of the National Task Force on a Broader, Bolder Approach to Education (boldapproach.org). Clara G. Muschkin is an Assistant Research Professor of Public Policy, Sanford School, Duke University.