Cutting Smart Start, More at Four Programs Hurts in Short and Long Run

Publication: Charlotte Observer

Author: Libby Doggett


07/02/2009 - Like most Americans, North Carolinians are closely tracking the economy, looking for signs of a turnaround. To spur a recovery, our policy choices should be targeted toward generating the maximum returns and stimulating our economy now and over the long-term.

Proposals currently before the state House and Senate would derail North Carolina's successful early childhood initiatives, More at Four and Smart Start, cutting as much as $40 and $28 million, respectively. A separate proposal to remove More at Four from the Department of Public Instruction could threaten the state's access to millions of federal dollars. Both the stimulus package and President Obama's budget include money to help states expand and improve pre-kindergarten programs. Moving the program could limit the state's ability to fully leverage these opportunities, a course fiscally unwise both in the short-term and for North Carolina's economic future.

After 40 years of research—including groundbreaking studies in North Carolina—we know that a child's experiences through age five lay the cognitive, social and emotional foundations for success in school and life. Economists and policy makers across the nation agree that investments in early care and education yield returns unmatched by most other government expenditures. Data show that a dollar invested in high-quality pre-K returns up to seven dollars to taxpayers through higher graduation rates and lifetime earnings, decreased incarceration and a reduced need for costly remedial education.

Until now, N.C. leaders acted on this evidence so effectively that the state became a national model in its commitment to early education. Dozens of states replicated its programs, and More at Four is one of only two state pre-K programs to meet all 10 quality benchmarks established by the National Institute for Early Education Research. Evaluations by UNC's Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute show that the program improves children's literacy, early math and social skills. Meanwhile, Smart Start provides local communities essential funding and technical assistance to provide early care and education for children.

Notably, leaders in other states facing significant budget gaps have prioritized pre-K. Alabama lawmakers passed a $3.2 million increase, and Georgia's legislature approved a $12.7 million expansion. In fact, a majority of governors proposed to increase or protect investments in pre-K programs for the coming fiscal year.

These leaders recognize that one of the best ways to strengthen their state's economy against future downturns is to build human capital – starting with children and the programs that prepare them for school and, ultimately, to contribute to their communities. While today's fiscal challenges demand difficult decisions, in North Carolina the wise choice should be clear: lawmakers must protect investments in More at Four and Smart Start.

A decision to do otherwise will weaken the state's economy further and compound the recession's effects on our children.

From Libby Doggett, deputy director, Pew Center on the States.

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