The state House of Representatives' budget bill would essentially eliminate state pre-kindergarten (Pre-K) in North Carolina.
During difficult budget times, we must focus limited resources on what we know works. North Carolina's Pre-K program, a national leader, has been shown to significantly improve academic outcomes for at-risk children in our state.
If we want to address the dropout rate and close the achievement gap, we must start in these earliest years. Both Democratic and Republican governors and legislators have implemented high-quality, educational Pre-K programs, because the research strongly supports it.
We know that there are few areas of educational research that show as powerful educational outcomes as Pre-K. Significant gains on longer term educational success for lower income and at-risk children - as well as benefits for society in lower welfare costs, higher employment and the like - have been found over and over again. When Pre-K is coupled with continued high-quality teaching and learning in grades K through 2, the outcomes for children's educational success are even more significant.
The House budget bill would not only cut Pre-K funding by 20 percent, it would eliminate the critical features that make the program successful. The funding cuts would be detrimental, but eliminating the basic structure of the program would be devastating. Maintaining the integrity of North Carolina's educational Pre-K system is critical to ensuring the quality of education and academic opportunity for our state's most vulnerable young children.
Under the House proposal, there would be no requirement or ability to pay for licensed teachers, and no support for effective teaching practices or the implementation of curricula that are provided by the state education agency. The proposal would move Pre-K out of the state education system and into child care licensing and the subsidy system. This would undermine the quality standards that currently exist, especially a high-quality, licensed Pre-K teacher workforce. The Division of Child Development, which administers and regulates child care and subsidy, has developed an exemplary child care system for North Carolina, but this agency is not designed nor staffed to support a Pre-K education program.
Managing Pre-K through the child care system would dilute its funding, undermine teacher quality and interrupt coordination with K-12 education, which is essential for seamless learning in the early grades. Many Pre-K classes in public schools would be discontinued because of new barriers imposed by a child care funding model that does not fit with public education.
It would also be almost impossible to coordinate with federal sources of Pre-K education funding. Currently, state Pre-K is able to leverage state, federal and local education resources - more important than ever in these tight fiscal times.
North Carolina's smart investments over the past 20-plus years have produced three nationally recognized components of early childhood education: high-quality Pre-K (one of only five states to meet all national standards); a high-quality child care system working continuously to raise quality; and Smart Start, which works with ages birth-5 to increase quality in child care, support families, promote healthy development and increase literacy.
These three initiatives have coordinated closely over the years to leverage resources, ensure coherent policies and support each other. By eliminating a key piece of this quality picture - along with 20 percent budget cuts to Pre-K and Smart Start - this bill would drop North Carolina from a national leader in Pre-K and early childhood education to the bottom of the pack.
We are well aware that our state budget is in crisis and there will be cuts to many worthwhile programs. But to decimate the basic structure of an effective and nationally recognized program that educates our most at-risk young children is a travesty.
Pre-K needs to be an education program, linked closely with the rest of the K-12 education system, with classes for children provided in diverse community settings, including public schools, Head Start and private child care programs.
In tight fiscal times, it is more critical than ever to focus on evidence in making decisions about what and how much to cut. Pre-K education has some of the best evidence available regarding its long-term effectiveness for educational and societal outcomes. Let's not use the stated need to cut the budget as an excuse for destroying the program.
Carolyn Cobb Ph.D., is a private early childhood education consultant and founding director of More at Four Pre-K. Barb Bradley is president and CEO of Action for Children North Carolina.