The bizarre appointment of prekindergarten opponent Dianna Lightfoot to head North Carolina’s early education division is a good signal that influential N.C. political leaders won’t be embracing President Barack Obama’s call for universal preschool.
Lightfoot’s already gone, having resigned two days after her hiring when news broke that she has publicly opposed prekindergarten.
Unless Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration is so inept that officials failed to do the most basic of background checks – in Lightfoot’s case it would have taken only signing on to a computer and typing in her name – the fact that she was considered knowing her background, let alone hired, shows disdain for public preschool.
Could this be the first wave of executive branch strategies to dismantle the nationally praised prekindergarten program? The Republican-led N.C. legislature has already tried to do that over the last two years. It slashed funding, instituted a copayment for participating families and lowered eligibility guidelines so many poor families wouldn’t qualify.
Then Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning, who has been overseeing for years state compliance with rulings in a school finance lawsuit, weighed in, calling the moves unconstitutional. He ordered them halted, saying they denied education access for all eligible at-risk 4-year-olds.
The legislature appealed, but the N.C. Appeals Court sided with Manning. The co-pay and eligibility changes were stopped. Lawmakers did not restore funding, but then-Gov. Bev Perdue issued an executive order last fall authorizing money to serve 6,300 additional children.
The attempts to dismantle pre-K in North Carolina have been shortsighted and wrongheaded. The state preschool program has been viewed as a national model. Last year, Rutgers University’s National Institute for Early Education Research gave N.C. plaudits for being one of just five states meeting all the benchmarks for a quality, cost-effective program.
Moreover, Obama’s push for universal preschool acknowledges something that N.C. lawmakers should note: The kind of quality preschool that North Carolina has been providing is an economic tool. It is a lure for businesses, increases the taxpaying base and saves the state money long-term.
Research shows low-income students succeed better academically, graduate from high school more often and are more economically productive later in life. Economic impact studies have shown that every $1 invested in early childhood education saves taxpayers up to $13 in future costs.
Several studies undergird this finding, including one in North Carolina, the Carolina Abecedarian Project. Last year, the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill released more data after following 101 of 111 participants in the study since they were infants – low-income and African-American, half who were enrolled in preschool and half not.
The results were impressive. According to the study of the adults at age 30, those who’d had preschool had significantly more years of education than those who didn’t; they were four times more likely to have earned college degrees; 23 percent of participants graduated from a four-year college or university compared with 6 percent in the group who did not attend preschool.
Those with preschool were also more likely to own homes, have longer marriages and were less likely to repeat grades, need special education or get into future trouble with the law.
Some scoff at preschool’s benefits, pointing to studies that show test-score gains for the students tend to evaporate by third grade. That’s been a refrain among some detractors of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ prekindergarten program.
Evidence is conflicting on that score. Head Start programs are pointed to most often for no lasting impact. Yet even with murky test score gains, more important and long-lasting benefits – self-sufficiency, higher education, staying out of trouble – were starkly evident. And those benefits held true even for participants in Head Start, David Deming at the Harvard Graduate School of Education reports.
Experts attribute these benefits to noncognitive skills that preschool provides that aren’t measured on tests – vital societal skills like patience, planning, cooperation and delaying gratification.
States around North Carolina recognize those benefits. Both Florida and Georgia have universal pre-K. Florida received the National Institute for Early Education’s top ranking for access. Obama cited Georgia’s lottery-funded pre-K as a model and was in the state Thursday to highlight it.
Last fall, South Carolina had a conference at which business leaders, politicians and educators touted the value of early childhood education. Keynote speaker John A. Weinberg, senior vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, calculated that more early childhood education would generate a 16 percent return on investment per year for S.C.
Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman has said the return on investment in pre-K is stronger than the stock market’s average performance since World War II.
Thankfully, Dianna Lightfoot won’t be heading N.C.’s preschool program. Her position that early childhood education for low-income children fosters “dependency on government and an entitlement mentality” is reflexive dogma that has no factual basis.
Universal preschool is a worthwhile goal.
In North Carolina, the fight goes on to ensure that every low-income child – children most at-risk – has such access. N.C. lawmakers’ machinations to reduce access have been shameful and harmful.
N.C. youngsters, particularly the poor, need the good start that quality preschool can give them. And as research shows, the state benefits as well.
MCT Information Services
Fannie Flono is a columnist
at The Charlotte Observer.