North Carolina, on the verge of abandoning its commitment to high-quality pre-kindergarten education, could not have worse timing. In the midst of a struggling recovery, now is not the time to give up on an investment research has proven to provide terrific economic returns.
North Carolina’s pre-K program, formerly known as More at Four, was ranked as one of the best programs nationally in terms of quality. Solid research from University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill shows More at Four improved readiness and raised third grade test scores for at-risk children.
Nationally, the research is clear that effective preschool programs like North Carolina’s permanently raise achievement, decrease dropout, and increase employment, productivity and earnings as recently reported in the distinguished journal Science.
Over the last half century, North Carolina’s leaders took on the enormous task of updating the state’s traditional economy of textiles and tobacco to refocus on newer fast-growing industries such as biotech and information technology. They did so, in part, by investing in improvements in education needed to boost the skills of the work force.
It’s a good thing they did or North Carolina would have an unemployment rate much worse than the 10.5 percent reported in September.
Given North Carolina’s legacy of pro-business policies and the ongoing economic development arms race between the states, one would think North Carolina would jealously guard its comparative advantages as it looks forward to economic recovery. Sadly, this is not the case.
In this year’s budget, the legislature reduced funding to state pre-K and Smart Start programs by 20 percent, meaning they could serve several thousand fewer children this fall. If this cut is sustained, thousands more children will enter kindergarten each year unprepared to succeed in school.
More recently, Judge Howard Manning, Jr. stepped in as part of the ongoing Leandro case to rule that it’s unconstitutional for the state to prevent eligible at-risk children from enrolling in state pre-K.
After Manning’s ruling, Governor Beverly Perdue issued an executive order requiring the state to accept all eligible 4-year-olds into North Carolina’s pre-K. Perdue’s plan restores enrollment to previous levels by January at no added cost to the taxpayer and provides a roadmap to achieve full enrollment on a reasonable time table over the next few years.
What remains to be seen is whether state lawmakers will support the plan Governor Perdue has put forward. The first test will be whether they pass the legislation needed to restore services to thousands of children in January at no cost. If they fail this first hurdle, it will serve as yet more evidence that not only has North Carolina’s economy declined, so has the quality of its leadership. And time is fast running out to take advantage of the opportunity the governor has offered.
Unless this situation is resolved to the benefit of the thousands of kids who lack a fair shot at succeeding in school, North Carolina risks rolling back years of progress made by earlier leaders who remember all too well what life was like when cotton was king.
- Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER