If there is a universally agreed-upon principle of elementary and secondary education, it is that kids benefit from an early leg up on school. That applies especially to children from disadvantaged backgrounds, who may otherwise miss out on the kind of experiences that enable them to take proper advantage of school once they reach kindergarten and beyond.
On the federal level, Head Start has been a monument to that principle. And in North Carolina, where public schools had to make do with the budget leavings for years until a series of progressive governors pushed public schooling to the top of the priority list, two programs for young, disadvantaged kids stand out: former Gov. Jim Hunt's Smart Start program, and former Gov. Mike Easley's More at Four initiative.
These programs aim, simply, at giving kids who might otherwise start behind in public school, and thus would be likely to stay behind, an early start. The benefits are many, in that the children gain an alternative to homes where parents may not have the time or inclination to work with them on reading or other basic skills, and that they get used to a school environment. That makes it less likely they'll be intimidated when the time comes to start their formal education.
So why is the state Senate's budget, which now will go to the House for discussion and amendment, dramatically cutting funding for Smart Start and More at Four?
Well, there's a $3 billion budget shortfall. And that's pretty much it. Oh, there are rumblings about how some parents whose children are eligible for More at Four don't work and should, and some calculations about how to get more federal funding, along with the fact that Hunt and Easley are no longer in office. But basically, this is about budget-balancing.
Here's why these are not the places to feel the sharpest sting of the knife: Investment in early childhood programs has positive ripples all through society for decades. If kids get started right and succeed in school, they become contributors to society, not inmates or probationers. If you don't believe that, talk to criminal defense attorneys and hear their horror stories of defendants who grew up without books in the home, with parents whose horizons were limited by their own lack of education.
Those who are better educated have better jobs, better health care. Again, a positive for all those who work and live with them. They pass their positive values on to their children. Ripples. From generation to generation.
The legislature indeed has tough duty to balance a budget, maintain basic services, and meet other objectives such as ensuring public safety by hiring more probation officers. But early childhood education is an investment in a better world for everybody, not just those it immediately benefits. Lawmakers must keep this in mind. Spare the budget blade, and save the child. These programs accomplish good things, with compassion and vision. They must be encouraged. They must be saved.