Legislative Republicans want to merge the state's early childhood education and health programs, Smart Start and More at Four, a move that would grant continued life to both but which raises the possibility of significant funding cuts.
Republican leaders are considering three consolidation options, said Rep. Mitch Gillespie, one of the leading budget writers in the House, and will discuss details - at least with the GOP legislative caucuses - next week. It's likely, Gillespie said, that the health and education program Smart Start will absorb More at Four, the preschool program for children at risk of academic failure.
"Merging will take all the good of More at Four and all the good things of Smart Start," he said. "We want to keep the good points of both of them."
State lottery proceeds pay for most of More at Four, and a majority of Smart Start's money comes from the state treasury. Merging the two would give budget writers the chance to save tax dollars by having them share lottery revenue, Gillespie said. Exactly how much the state could save, he said, depends on which merger option legislators choose.
Advocates for preschool children have been on high alert ever since Republican budget writers said they would consider consolidating the two programs or getting rid of one, or both.
The decision to merge comes after several weeks of intense lobbying by Smart Start advocates, including parents, day care providers, Smart Start administrators and the program's father, former Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt.
Smart Start, founded in 1993, is a nationally acclaimed program. This week, Duke University researchers released preliminary findings from a study of the two programs that show they help improve reading and math scores.
But Smart Start has not enjoyed the stature around budget-writing time that it had while Hunt was in office. The $180 million in state money Smart Start received this year is less than it had to work with in 2003. But Democrats who controlled the legislature until this year never talked of killing it.
The notion that Smart Start may be in serious jeopardy put Hunt back into sales mode, pitching the program's benefits to new Republican leaders.
In the past two weeks, Hunt has met with Gillespie, House Speaker Thom Tillis, Senate leader Phil Berger - Hunt put the count at about a dozen Republicans and Democrats in all.
"It's been a long time since I was around telling the Smart Start story," Hunt said. "People, I think are impressed with the fact that this is a real effective public-private partnership."
Links that bind
Smart Start gets most of its money from the state, but some private contributions are required. The programs are run by 77 local boards that cover all 100 counties. The local boards must spend a set percentage of their money on child care subsidies, but use the rest on programs they determine will best meet local needs.
The structure allows the local boards to build connections in their communities to schools, medical providers and other businesses and nonprofits. It also creates support from throughout the state, producing a core of backers who will call their legislators when the program is threatened.
"The local partnerships in the counties believe in their program, they run it and are very proud of it and totally support it," Hunt said.
Plenty of parents are eager to talk up Smart Start. Danielle Billingsley, a Raleigh mother of two young children, said child care subsidies from the organization allow her children to attend a top-quality center while she works and studies.
Billingsley wanted more than babysitting out of a child care center, and found one in Wanda's Little Hands, which she credits with helping prepare her 5-year-old daughter, Laurena, for kindergarten.
"They're actually getting an education there," she said.
Former Gov. Mike Easley launched More at Four, which is housed within the state Department of Public Instruction, in 2002. More at Four does not have the high-profile big name defender that Smart Start has in Hunt, but state education leaders vouch for it.
State Board of Education Chairman Bill Harrison said More at Four's value is illustrated in the results of a study by the FPG Child Development Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill last year that said economically disadvantaged children enrolled in the program had higher scores on third-grade reading and math tests than similar students who were not enrolled in the state's preschool.
Talk of combining the two programs has gone on for years. In 2003, then-Auditor Ralph Campbell, a Democrat, suggested merging the programs to save money and avoid duplication.
Easley stomped on the idea.
About two years ago, a legislative study group led by House and Senate Democrats also considered consolidation, but "didn't pull the trigger," as one of its leaders, Rep. Ray Rapp said.
Stephanie Fanjul, president of the N.C. Partnership for Children, the organization that oversees Smart Start, said the two programs share the goal of preparing children for school, but reach it by different paths.
Combining the two would not be simple, she said, because More at Four is a state program and the local Smart Start organizations are independent nonprofits.
But Smart Start and More at Four are already interconnected, with a number of the local Smart Start offices administering More at Four in their counties or regions.
The Wake County Smart Start office is one of those. It helps direct young children to the programs for which they qualify and will meet their needs: More at Four, child care, special public school classes for preschool children with developmental delays, or the federal program Head Start.
"It's merged in local communities," and people who use the programs don't know about all the money sources, said Pam Dowdy, Wake Smart Start executive director.
But as legislators consider mergers, Dowdy said, they should keep a goal in mind. "The key foundation is sustaining services to children," she said.
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