Editorial: Early education preventative
North Carolina has not completely embraced the way its early childhood education programs are organized, and there may be room for improvement. Certainly the programs can be streamlined without being eliminated.
Weíre talking about Smart Start and More at Four, signature initiatives founded by North Carolina governors to improve health and education in the state, starting with the very young.
Jim Hunt championed Smart Start, which provides low-income families with day care as well as dental, hearing and developmental screenings. The program aims 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.
A bill that would have merged the programs stalled in 2009ís Democrat-controlled session of the General Assembly. Now Republicans are in charge, and these programs are on the long list of programs under scrutiny. Should they be merged, downsized, eliminated or what?
If wise spending is the goal, legislative leaders should consider how an investment in a childís early health and education can yield benefits for years to come. Duke University has been doing research on the programs and recently announced positive preliminary findings. They found third-graders have higher reading and math scores and lower special education placement rates in counties that received relatively more funding for Smart Start and More at Four when these children were younger. The effects for both initiatives are greater for families with low maternal education ó the ones that need it most ó than for families with high maternal education.
The state is still learning about the programsí effectiveness, and Rowan County has a lesson to share. Smart Start and More at Four are both administered out of the local Smart Start office ó merged, in effect ó without dire consequence. The same is true in Wake County. If merging works in the communities, could it work with top administration in Raleigh? That is the question, and financial necessity may provide the answer.