North Carolina Debates Cutting Early Childhood Programs as UNC Study Determines Their Value

January 23, 2012

North Carolina Debates Cutting Early Childhood Programs as UNC Study Determines Their Value

[caption id="attachment_971" align="alignleft" width="220" caption="Image courtesy of phaewilk"][/caption] The online journal Developmental Psychology will publish a study this week which has been 30 years in the making. Developmental researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill conducted an experiment which tracked 111 low-income babies from 1972 forward. Half of those babies were entered into high quality child care and early childhood educational programs. The other half, the “control” were left with whatever services their parents could provide. The findings are groundbreaking in the field of early education – the percentage of children from the experimental group that went to a 4-year college or beyond was nearly four times that of the control. Clearly, the influence of early intervention in the educational process can have a long-lasting effect on the minds of children and adults, especially among low-income children whose parents may not be willing or able to provide developmentally appropriate stimulation at home. A Rich History North Carolina has a very rich history when it comes to the development and inclusion of state-funded pre-k programs, which date back to the early 1990’s and then-governor Jim Hunt. North Carolina’s groundbreaking Smart Start Program was the first of its kind in the nation. Smart Start, a statewide early childhood system, included a Quality Rating and Improvement system which has been the basis for other states’ pre-k programs. The Battle over Pre-K However, at the same time that this study is being released, a major debate is taking place among members of the Republican-controlled North Carolina State Legislature and its Democratic governor, Bev Perdue, over the funding of these universal pre-kindergarten programs in North Carolina. While Perdue, citing the UNC study, has asked her administration to develop a plan which will include funding for low-income pre-kindergarten programs, the legislature, led by State Senator Phil Berger, has likened these programs to “welfare” and refused to support them. Similar to many other states right now, the questions in regards to immediate budgetary gaps versus the long-range benefit of social programs has come under fire in a tough economy. Voters, already stretched at the personal level, cannot afford the rising tax rates that extending a program like this would cause. Last year, under a more narrow definition of “at risk” the state-funded pre-k program in North Carolina cost $161 million. However, estimates of the broader definition say that more than twice as many children could qualify for state-funded pre-k in the coming years. At What Cost? As the details of the UNC study surface in the coming weeks, the debate over the funding of pre-kindergarten in North Carolina will continue. For the so-called “at risk” students, quadrupling or even doubling the likelihood of them attending college could make a huge difference in terms of their future and the economic future of this country. However, opponents of increased spending will point to the fact that the UNC study included high-quality programs from birth, not 4-years old and that the really long term monetary benefits may not equal the investment. Yet, for the child in the at risk home whose future depends on his love of learning and ability to thrive outside of his unfortunate birth conditions, the benefits of programs like North Carolina’s are clear. The issue remains: clearly, budgets need to be cut in order to ensure short-term viability, but at what cost to the future?



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