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Paying For The Future

School bus
Dave Dewitt

Today is child advocacy day at the State Legislature. Hundreds of people who support early childhood development programs like Smart Start and More at Four are expected to descend on Raleigh. They will argue that the programs provide much-needed support to low-income families.

They arrive as the General Assembly is presiding over one of the worst budget crises in history. And for many legislators, the more than $300 million spent on two different child development programs looks like a legitimate place to find cuts.

Taylor Thorp was a normal, active two-year old when she suddenly stopped talking. She had hit all the development markers… walking at age one, speaking some simple words a few months later. But then something happened and Taylor shut down. Her mom, Ann, went looking for answers.

"‘Cause we were told she had a speech impediment and we took her to speech therapy for almost a year and it didn’t seem to work."

Taylor was four years old and still not talking when she came to Bright Beginnings, a five-star daycare in west Cary. Thorp is a single mom and works the night shift as a building supervisor in downtown Raleigh and couldn’t afford the 8-hundred dollar a month tuition. So she applied and was accepted into More at Four, which covered the cost.

After a few weeks at Bright Beginnings, the teachers there had a hunch about Taylor. They arranged for her to get tested, and a short time later, their guess was confirmed. Taylor was autistic.

"So if it wasn’t for them we never would have thought about autism cause the doctors never said anything, so..."

More at Four is an academic program that began in 2001. It serves at-risk four-year-olds and currently costs North Carolina about $170 million a year. Smart Start is more comprehensive, serving children and their families from birth to age 5. It costs nearly $200 million a year and includes health screenings, dental care, and training programs for about 31,000 kids. Much of the funding comes from the state lottery.

Advocates say these programs help reduce remediation, drop-outs, even incarceration rates later in life. Research on the More at Four program by The Frank Porter Graham Child Development institute at UNC Chapel Hill confirms that poor children that came through the program do better academically in third grade than poor children who weren’t in More at Four.

Both programs were started by democratic governors - Jim Hunt and Mike Easley. Bev Perdue says she’s the caretaker of the programs, and she vows to fight for them.

"I’m part of the history of Smart Start and I’m fundamentally committed to the program. I will work with these advocates to make sure that every member of the general assembly and there’s a lot of new people, understand what Smart Start is and why it looks like what it does. But the most important thing is the difference it makes in the outcome of a child’s life."

She’s not the only one trying to educate the new state legislators. Andrew Henson is a policy analyst with the Civitas Institute, a conservative think tank.

"I think that Smart Start does some good, but I think in the course of my investigation, I am led to believe that it could do better."

Henson says a better administrative structure could get more of the money directly to the families it serves. He also says eliminating programs within Smart Start would make more money available for child-care subsidies. As an example, he points to a $70,000 program in Mecklenburg County called Raising A Reader that promotes daily book sharing.

"It’s a good service ostensibly but when you can use that money to enable more children to have access to affordable child care I think it’s an indefensible argument."

Henson says these are the kinds of cuts lawmakers should consider. And they will need to find a lot of them to plug a 2-and-a-half billion dollar budget gap. The preliminary version of the republican budget hints at even greater reductions: consolidating Smart Start and More at Four, or perhaps eliminating them altogether.

Doctor Olson Huff says that would set the state back decades. He has been a pediatrician in western North Carolina for more than 40 years and is now the Board Chair for the North Carolina Partnership for Children, which administers Smart Start.

"We must not discard the infrastructures that we have built in these valuable programs just on the basis of the basis of current economic expediency. Because when this recession is over, and it will end, what will we have left if we have destroyed the infrastructure?"

Other states are at the same crossroads. Arizona and Ohio have eliminated all funding for early childhood programs. Others, like New Jersey and Pennsylvania, are considering major cuts.

Steve Barnett is the co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. He says looking for short-term savings over long-term costs has a precedent.

"Of course, that’s exactly how many states got into problems with their pension funds. When we cut preschool we’re just kicking the can down the road and making those problems worse."

Barnett says that while state legislatures make cuts, other countries are going the opposite direction. Cities in China like Shanghai are adding universal quality preschool for all children. Developing countries like Mexico and Singapore are passing similar laws, as well.

"There is a global movement to preschools. They think education is their major advantage in terms of international competition."

Global competition isn’t on Ann Thorp’s mind. She just knows her oldest daughter, Taylor, would be a different child if it wasn’t for the chance she got to go to a high-quality preschool. Now, Taylor’s in fourth grade.

"She’s a straight A student. She’s an amazing artist. She’s smart, she’s bright, she’s funny. Oh my goodness, it’s like ten lights years away from where she used to be. And honestly I really, really don’t think she’d be where she is now if the people at Bright Beginnings didn’t say ‘Ann, look, something’s wrong.’"

Ann’s other daughter, Paige, is in the More at Four program this year at Bright Beginnings. Depending on how the budget negotiations shake out, she could be among the last children served by North Carolina’s early childhood programs.

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