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Editorial: Smart merger for state

When you’re looking for billions, a $3.4 million savings doesn’t make a dent. But the General Assembly would be wise to approve the proposed merger of Smart Start and More at Four to save that amount and, more important, connect the state’s early childhood programs.
Both are signature programs of past North Carolina governors.
Jim Hunt championed Smart Start, which provides low-income families with dental, hearing and developmental screenings and day care. The program aims, as its name suggests, to give children a good start and lay the foundation for them to enter school healthy and prepared. The N.C. Partnership for Children operates Smart Start under the Department of Health and Human Services.
Mike Easley pioneered More at Four, a pre-kindergarten program administered by the Department of Public Instruction and funded with lottery proceeds. It operates in public schools, private child care and Head Start facilities ó again, aimed at making sure children from low-income families or otherwise deemed at risk get a good start in school.
The parallels are obvious ó so obvious that 51 Partnerships for Children in the state already run both programs, including in Rowan. In the remaining communities, the programs are administrated separately. A bill in the legislature, House Bill 539, would make that merger uniform across the state.
Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, is lead author of the bill and sees the merger as a logical step. “In short, HB 539 will change more in Raleigh than it will in the local classrooms and child care facilities, while saving over $3.4 million in the first two years,” Rapp says in the report. The main obstacles to the bill are turf battles ó some administrators could lose their jobs. But the end result could improve the effectiveness of the programs by providing a seamless continuum of services from birth to 5.
Things are never as simple as they seem. Easley and Hunt have resisted efforts through the years to dovetail their legacy programs. The state Head Start Association opposes the merger, saying it would essentially dismantle the Office of School Readiness, dilute program quality and otherwise be detrimental. The association recommends that a study commission look into the matter ó an idea that has come up before.
The way the state budget is going, the point may be moot. Gov. Bev Perdue proposed modest cuts in both programs in her budget, but lawmakers might take a heavier hand. More at Four has had brushes with elimination before when times were tight. Merger could forestall its demise; a study commission might accomplish the same thing for the time being. North Carolina has received national attention for its innovative school readiness programs. The state has a big investment in keeping them viable.

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