Merging childhood programs could save money

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 19, 2011

By Sarah Campbell
State legislators have proposed merging the early childhood programs Smart Start and More at Four to reduce spending and fill a more than $2.4 billion budget gap.
ěEverything is on the table right now,î N.C. Rep. Harry Warren, R-Rowan, said Friday.
Warren said with education making up more than half of the stateís budget, every program must be examined.
ěEverything is being reviewed, all options are being explored,î he said. ěPeople have to understand that with this deficit there is no way that education can come out of this budget unscathed.î
N.C. Sen. Andrew Brock, R-Rowan, said the idea is just one of many that have been posed to narrow the deficit. ěWe are trying to be as innovative and efficient with the money as possible,î he said.
Brock said the merger would keep the strongest aspects of each program and ditch any weaknesses.
ěWeíre trying to take the best of both worlds to create a more efficient, more streamlined early childhood education program,î he said.
Smart Start Rowan Executive Director John Gerstenmier said he understands the difficult task legislators face, but he doesnít want to see the programs deteriorate due to lack of funds.
ěWe need to keep in mind that we donít want to reduce services to the children,î he said. ěMost of the funding is just going to pay for teachers.î
Gerstenmier said hiring highly qualified licensed teachers will become difficult if dollars arenít in place to support the cost.
ěItís hard for us to advance the educational requirement and at the same time reduce the pay,î he said. ěItís not a good business model to sustain our center.î
Unlike many counties, Smart Start Rowan already administers More at Four.
But Gerstenmier says that doesnít mean they receive any less state money since both programs are funded separately.
ěIf weíre looking to end one program and eliminate the dollars that flow through that funding stream and think we can continue to pay for services for our children, I donít see how thatís possible,î he said.
Gerstenmier said 334 Rowan County children are currently enrolled in More at Four, a pre-kindergarten program that serves at-risk populations.
He said Smart Start provides child care and services for health, cognitive and social development to a third of Rowan County children ages 5 and younger.
ěWe touch their lives in some way, shape or form,î Gerstenmier said.
A recent study by Duke University found third-graders have higher standardized reading and math scores and lower special education placement rates in counties that had received more funding for Smart Start and More at Four when those children were younger.
ěBoth are excellent programs and I support them both. And if consolidating them is the best way to salvage the best assets of those programs as opposed to losing one or both of them, then that might be best,î Warren said. ěSometimes itís better to have half a loaf than nothing.î
More at Four spending has averaged about $1,250 for every 4-year-old in a county, and Smart Start spending has averaged about $250 per child per year, according to the Smart Start website.
Gerstenmier said as legislators talk about cuts to the programs he hopes they avoid anything long-term or permanent.
ěI hope things are trimmed and pruned like a bush, not cut so low that it canít grow back,î he said.
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.