Restore N.C.'s leadership in early childhood learning

As the election nears, citizens agree that our highest priority is improving the economy. We must be pro-business and pro-economic growth. And we must look for real economic development, not a quick fix.Toward that end, candidates and voters, we ask that you heed the advice of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents more than 3 million businesses: invest in early childhood education for every child.

In its report “Why Business Should Support Early Childhood Education,” the U.S. Chamber of Commerce concludes that effective workforce training “begins with high-quality early learning opportunities for children from birth to age five.” This is not an agenda of the far left or the far right, of Republicans or Democrats. The report summarizes scientific evidence and consensus among business experts.

The Chamber’s report cites North Carolina’s legacy in leading the nation in early childhood education, by developing two complementary models: the Smart Start Initiative that enhances high-quality child care and education for children aged birth to 5 years, and the More At Four program that provides a year of school readiness curricula for disadvantaged 4-year-olds.

Of course, North Carolina’s legacy goes back even further: The Abecedarian Project at UNC-Chapel Hill was the pioneer of high-quality early childhood education back in the 1960s.

But North Carolina’s legacy has been tarnished over the past few years. Eight other states have committed to prekindergarten programs for all children, but not our state. And worse, our legislature has cut funding for early childhood programs by 20 percent in the past two years and threatens to make even deeper cuts next year.

Should we care? Absolutely. Will the cuts harm our state’s economy or help it? To address this question, we, along with colleague Helen Ladd, have evaluated the impact of Smart Start and More at Four on children’s educational outcomes using data on every child born in North Carolina since 1990 who later enrolled in public school. We have no stake in the outcome, and we used the most rigorous statistical models available.

We found that North Carolina’s early childhood education programs raised third-grade reading and math test scores and lowered the rate of placements into costly special education. By the time children completed grade three, these programs had paid for themselves in educational benefits alone. By the time children reach adolescence, it is likely that the investment will yield benefits in high school graduation and career-readiness that will improve our state’s businesses and economy.

Further, we found that each program generates unique benefits, and two programs yield more benefits than either program by itself.

And, best of all, these programs are dirt cheap. During the first decade of this century, these programs were funded at an average level of about $2,250 for each child. That is, North Carolina allocated about $250 per year for every child in the state when that child was aged 0, 1, 2 and 3, and then another $1,250 per child at age 4, so that the total investment that each child in the state received before kindergarten entry averaged $2,250.

This is a relatively small investment compared with the $101,232 that we currently spend on educating a single child in public school for 12 years.

In the past two years, the two programs have been merged, and overall funding has been cut severely. Gov. Beverly Perdue has tried to bring back every dollar that she can find, but political opponents have successfully turned friends of early childhood education against her efforts by bickering about where the dollars would come from.

If legislators cut early childhood programs more deeply than they already have, could families bear the cost? The average family of four with two young children already spends 29 percent of its monthly income on early education and care. Without access to Smart Start and More at Four (or its successor program, NC Pre-Kindergarten), these costs would increase substantially or families would go without services for their children. Clearly, families cannot be squeezed any more, nor should they bear the brunt of ill-advised policy.

Are we willing to say to our young children, “Even though we know you will bear the economic burden of our decision, we still want the money for ourselves right now?”

So we ask candidates for office in North Carolina to promise today that they will vote for restoring and raising funding for early childhood education. Do it today, so that we can know how we should vote on Tuesday.

Kenneth Dodge and Clara Muschkin are professors at the Center for Child and Family Policy and the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. This commentary was originally published in The (Raleigh) News & Observer on Nov. 1. 2012.