Don't destroy Smart Start

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 26, 2011

By John D. Gerstenmier
For the Salisbury Post
Tuesday was a very sad day for the youngest children (birth to 5 years) in North Carolina.
In the name of “budget balancing” our Senate leadership proposed to set Smart Start, North Carolina’s nationally recognized early childhood program, back at least a generation.
With regard to quality early childhood development, there is no balance in the proposed legislative budgets and little child development wisdom either.
The Senate HHS Appropriations Committee put forth a plan to dismantle Smart Start by eliminating the North Carolina Partnership for Children. The NCPC Board of Directors and staff administer the Smart Start program across the state, ensuring quality and accountability at the local partnership level. A recent Duke University study reported the benefits realized through the quality programs funded through Smart Start across North Carolina. NCPC has been a proponent of good stewardship in the use of state funds; utilizing a mere 3 percent for administrative costs and receiving clean audits for the past nine consecutive years. The Senate proposal would replace NCPC guidance and leadership by having the remaining funding pass through the Department of Child Development in Raleigh. The state DCD office would administer the contracts that govern which programs are funded in each county.
The key administrative component of Smart Start has always been our local board of directors who oversee local program funding that serves the specific needs identified in our community. This public-private partnership has provided the highly effective and efficient administration recognized by the Duke study. Smart Start programming is identified and administered locally. It is designed and monitored to better serve our children and their families.  
The proposed legislative budgets, in addition to imposing a 20 percent reduction on Smart Start funding, also place several special provisions. These special provisions would effectively eliminate most current Smart Start programming by mandating a larger percentage of our remaining program funding be directed to basic subsidy support through the Department of Social Services. Local control would be severely restricted by further limiting administrative funding to a mere 4 percent of the total funding received. In Rowan County, this would provide less than $80,000 annually for all fiscal and administrative salaries, plus associated benefits, Social Security, building rents and utilities.  
In Rowan County this would translate into the following changes:
• Elimination of funding for More at Four in its present quality format serving 334 Rowan County at-risk 4-year-olds in private centers, public schools and Head Start classrooms, preparing them for success in kindergarten.
• A reduction or elimination of funding for the following programs which serve Rowan County children and families: The literacy program Stories to Go, contracted through the Rowan Public Library system; the family support programs Parents as Teachers, Strengthening Families and Good Beginnings for Teen Parents, contracted through the Adolescent and Family Enrichment Council; Healthy Beginnings, Health Link and Child Care Health Consultant services, contracted through our Health Department; the community inclusion specialist contracted through Partners In Learning. The Smart Start Rowan Play to Learn activities, parenting resource room and lending library, provider resources and local family referral services for early childhood needs will also be minimized, if not eliminated.
All of our young children, not just those served by minimal market rate subsidy payments through DSS, deserve a quality early childhood education experience.
The healthy development of the young child is a holistic process, one which must include health initiatives, family support and parenting programs, along with quality early care and education experiences.
The state legislature would appear to “pass the buck” to local leadership, buying our support with the possibility of a fraction of a penny in local tax.
For the sake of a penny sales tax extension, not an increase, our legislative leaders are preparing to throw our babies out with the bath water.  Our elected state leadership would wash their hands of any guilt in the matter, drying them with editorial self-praise for the penny tax they are saving each of us.  
We owe it to our children to ensure that this does not happen. Certainly they deserve more balanced thinking and at least a penny more!
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The Rev. John D. Gerstenmier serves as the executive director of Smart Start Rowan.