It’s October and our kindergartners have been in the classroom for only a month, though it’s already apparent which children had the benefit of high-quality early childhood care and which did not. The difference is stark.
The most fortunate kids had plenty of opportunities from birth through age 4 to prepare for school as a result of great early childhood programs like Smart Start, N.C. Pre-K and child care subsidies. However, as a result of several years of budget cuts at the state level, fewer children have access to these opportunities. Those children are entering kindergarten at a serious disadvantage.
Fortunately, the state Court of Appeals recently ruled that the state must provide N.C. Pre-Kindergarten (Pre-K) to any at-risk 4-year-old who applies for the program. Unfortunately, legislative leaders have stated that they intend to appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court and have failed to provide any additional funding to eliminate the current wait list.
It’s time for legislators to start figuring out how to provide the best early education for the most children, regardless of the outcome of legal proceedings.
As a former kindergarten teacher and current national classroom coach, consultant, mentor and trainer, I appreciate prior first-rate early childhood experiences. Kindergarten teachers know that these high-quality experiences grant opportunities for children to learn how to socialize – get along with other children, share and contribute to group experiences.
They learn how to deal with strong feelings in appropriate ways and develop self-regulation skills. At preschool, they are exposed to numbers, letters and shapes, and often become emergent readers. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, children who attend high-quality preschool enter kindergarten with better pre-reading skills, richer vocabularies and stronger basic math skills than those who do not. Kindergarten teachers see these differences each and every day.
With Smart Start and N.C. Pre-K, we are fortunate to have two great programs already in place, though both programs received a 20 percent funding cut in 2011 and serving fewer children as a result. Furthermore, in refusing to abide by the decision of the Court of Appeals, the legislature has created a wait list of approximately 12,000 children for the NC Pre-K program.
While the current legal and political debate has shifted to N.C. Pre-K, it’s important to remember that early childhood education should start before 4 years old. It is the first five years of life that have a lasting impact on learning, health and success. Experiences determine how children’s brains are wired from day one, not on the day when they turn 4.
There’s no denying that deepening our commitment to early learning is a big investment, but it’s an investment that pays off in spades. Investing in early education produces students that will grow into better innovators, entrepreneurs and citizens down the road. We all benefit from that. Furthermore, multiple studies have shown a substantial return (up to 8 to 1) on investment for every dollar spent on high-quality early education.
As a lifelong early childhood educator and former North Carolina Teacher of the Year, I know this works. It’s time for legislators to stop dawdling and to start figuring out how to build upon the early education programs we are fortunate enough to have and to make sure all children in North Carolina enter kindergarten ready to learn.
Kim Hughes lives in Wake Forest.