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In response: More at Four merger isn’t smart

By John Pruette
For the Salisbury Post
I am writing in response to your recent editorial “Smart merger for state,” supporting the proposed legislation to merge the state’s More at Four academic pre-kindergarten program with Smart Start. Your article lacked key information and included factual errors.
First, your editorial fails to address the most crucial component of More at Four ó its high educational standards. Just this week the More at Four program was named one of the top two pre-kindergarten programs in the country, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). NIEER released its annual survey of state-funded preschool programs, State of Preschool 2008, and for the fourth year, More at Four was one of only two programs in the nation to meet all 10 of the survey’s benchmarks on early learning standards, teacher degrees, teacher specialized training, assistant teacher degrees, continuing professional development requirements, maximum class size, staff-child ratios, screening, referral and support services, meals and monitoring procedures.
All of these benchmarks contribute to the high quality of education offered by More at Four. A merger with Smart Start would make it difficult for program administrators to maintain these nationally recognized standards and would harm the quality of education the program currently provides to more the 32,000 at-risk 4-year-olds across our state.
Your article also cited incorrectly that 51 Partnerships for Children run both More and Four and Smart Start programs. Currently, 39 Partnerships administer More at Four funds at the local level, compared to 49 Local Education Agencies. In every county in the state, however, leadership and planning responsibilities for More at Four are shared among school systems and local partnerships via local More at Four planning committees. A merger would destroy this arrangement and school districts would lose all responsibility for More at Four decision-making at the local level.
At the state level, the merger would create many more problems than just a “turf battle” in Raleigh. The Department of Public Instruction, where More at Four is currently housed, is in the best position to coordinate and maximize opportunities for pre-k education created by the federal stimulus package and a significant new emphasis on learning from the U.S. Department of Education. The NCDPI’s Office of School Readiness coordinates all state and federal funding for all pre-k initiatives, including Title I, Preschool Exceptional Children (IDEA), Even Start and Head Start. A merger would abolish this office and fracture the department’s ability to coordinate all of these crucial statewide programs.
When discussing a potential merger, it is also important to note the consequences of similar legislative changes in Massachusetts and Florida. In both states legislation was supposed to improve efficiency and increase the availability of preschool education by merging education and child care and shifting administration away from the Department of Education.
Instead, standards and educational effectiveness were undermined. Administration and support provided by state departments of education and public schools help ensure that preschool programs are educationally effective, even when those programs are largely operated by private child care providers. Most states use this type of structure, or something similar that provides the same resources. No state currently operates its pre-kindergarten program through a nonprofit organization, which is the operational structure of Smart Start.
To truly understand the possible implications of a merger of More at Four and Smart Start, your readers need accurate information. Once you examine all the facts, it is clear that this proposed legislation would knock North Carolina down from its position as a national leader in pre-k education and damage our ability to adequately prepare thousands of at-risk children to enter school and achieve academic success in the future.
– – –
John Pruette is executive director of the N.C. Office of School Readiness.

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