We may identify with different political parties, but we are united in our belief that when all children have the opportunity to fulfill their potential, we are all better off.
North Carolinians agree. Majorities of Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters – 86 percent of North Carolina voters – say making sure children get a strong start in life is a top priority for the state, second only to the economy and far ahead of reducing taxes. And they see a direct link between child development and economic development, with 83 percent believing that early childhood investments will help our economy. Those are some of the key findings of a new bipartisan poll conducted by the N.C. Early Childhood Foundation and the First Five Years Fund.
North Carolinians have always embraced early learning and education as a pillar of the state’s prosperity and quality of life. Over the course of our history, local residents, county officials, state leaders and many others took bold action in unprecedented ways – chartering the first public university in the United States, launching the country’s first statewide full-day kindergarten and creating an early learning model for the nation. It’s one of the reasons that we built our careers here. We recognized that like us, North Carolinians value opportunity – both in giving each child a fair chance from the start and seizing upon it to better the state.
Like us, North Carolinians get the connection between getting a strong start and later success in school and life. That’s why they support programs that begin from birth and continue through the early grades. Seventy percent of North Carolina voters, including a majority of Republicans (54 percent), unaffiliated (64 percent) and Democrats (86 percent), support programs that strengthen families, like voluntary home visiting and parent education programs.
They recognize the value of North Carolina’s nationally recognized programs, NC Pre-K and Smart Start, and want to expand access to them. Rated as one of the highest-quality prekindergarten programs for 4-year-olds in the nation, N.C. Pre-K currently serves less than a quarter of the state’s 4-year-olds. And only a fraction of the state’s children benefit from Smart Start, a program that works with families, teachers, faith communities, doctors and educators to ensure healthy development and early learning for children birth to 5.
This is a shame, because both programs affect third-grade reading, the single greatest predictor of academic achievement and career success. Research by Duke University showed that by the end of third grade, children in counties with greater investments in NC Pre-K and Smart Start had higher reading and math scores and fewer special education placements. No wonder three-quarters of voters expressed support for expanding access to NC Pre-K and Smart Start so that more children can participate.
Additionally, voters recognized that children in the early elementary school grades have needs different from their older student peers. Eighty-eight percent want North Carolina to invest in training and classroom resources so that all preschool and early elementary school teachers are able to teach each child in a way that addresses individual needs and ensures a strong start in reading and school.
North Carolina could receive funds to support our local programs and provide access to more children through a proposal Congress is considering called Strong Start for America’s Children. An overwhelming number of North Carolinians want it to move forward. Nearly three-quarters of North Carolina voters (71 percent) support greater federal investment in local early childhood education even if it increased the deficit in the short term but paid for itself in the long term by improving children’s education, health and economic situations.
Given that it is election season, perhaps the most compelling numbers in the poll are these: A majority of voters are more likely to vote for candidates who support early childhood education, including 73 percent of mothers, 57 percent of moderates and 53 percent of Independents. In fact, nearly a third of voters even said they would be much more likely to vote for a candidate who supported investments in early childhood education, with only 9 percent saying they would be less likely.
North Carolinians see the importance of early childhood education and know that now is the time to invest. Too many children are waiting to get a strong start in life – and that’s costly to them and all of us. When we look at these numbers, we see opportunity. It’s up to all of us to seize it.
Bill Shore, former director of U.S. Community Partnerships at GlaxoSmithKline, is co-founder of the Institute for a Competitive Workforce at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Patti Gillenwater, CEO of Elinvar, is chairman of the Board of Communities in Schools of Wake County. Both serve on the Board of Directors of the N.C. Early Childhood Foundation.