Study: Early childhood programs in NC reduce special education

Children enrolled in North Carolina’s state-supported early education programs have a reduced chance of being placed in special education by third grade, Duke University researchers say.

The findings suggest that state investment in quality early childhood programs can prevent costly special education later. The study is published Tuesday in the American Educational Research Association’s journal, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.

The researchers, Clara Muschkin, Helen Ladd and Kenneth Dodge, analyzed data about North Carolina special education placement and children’s access to two early childhood programs – NC Pre-K, which provides preschool for at-risk 4-year-olds, and Smart Start, which provides child health and family services to children from birth to age 5. The study covered the period from 1995 to 2010.

Access to the state’s prekindergarten program for 4-year-olds (at the 2009 funding of $1,110 per child) reduced the likelihood of third-grade special education placements by 32 percent, and access to Smart Start reduced the odds by 10 percent. Researchers saw a 39 percent reduction in special education placements following both early childhood programs.

Muschkin said the results are “yet another incentive” for policymakers to extend early education to children to avoid spending more on special education down the road.

“It costs about twice as much to educate a child in third grade who receives special education services,” Muschkin said. “If we were spending $8,000 for a regular third-grader, we would be spending twice that for a third-grader placed in special education.”

She said that the study confirmed the researchers’ hypothesis that there are conditions in young children that could be improved by high-quality early childhood education – including some learning issues and attention disorders. Such programs did not have an effect on physical or other serious disabilities, Muschkin said.

Sen. Jerry Tillman, an Archdale Republican and co-chairman of the education committee, said he wanted to look further at the study’s results. Many studies show quality prekindergarten’s positive impact on student performance in early grades, Tillman said, but some studies cast doubt on whether the gains are long lasting.

Taking a close look

“I’m going to take a look at this one,” he said, “because I’ve never seen it associated with special education one way or the other.”

Tillman said special education is more costly because of smaller class sizes and special services for children.

The state’s NC Pre-K program, previously known as More at Four, has been the subject of political wrangling in recent years. A 2011 state budget provision limited preschool seats for at-risk children, prompting a legal challenge that ended up in the state Supreme Court. The legislature by then had amended the budget language to do away with the limit and a proposed co-payment.

The state has established prekindergarten for poor children as a way to ensure that all children in the state have access to a sound, basic education – the standard established by the courts in a long-running lawsuit about a school quality in North Carolina.

But not all poor children in the state have access to the state Pre-K program. By one estimate, about 67,000 4-year-olds would qualify. The number of available slots has varied with the state’s funding year to year. Tillman said more slots were added in 2014.

In the Duke study, researchers found that the prekindergarten program cut down on the number of children with preventable disabilities, including attention disorders and mild mental disabilities. Smart Start, researchers said, helped reduce children classified as having a learning disability, which accounts for almost 40 percent of placements in special education.

Avoiding special ed

Muschkin said some children had avoided special education altogether, while others were able to move out of special ed to traditional classrooms sooner.

The study implied that even children who were not funded for an NC Pre-K slot benefited from being in the same classroom as others who received education according to the program’s high standards.

“It certainly would be a really cost-effective investment to increase access to the early childhood program,” Muschkin said. “We certainly aren’t reaching all the children who may come to school with disadvantages and all the children whose special needs might be taken care of early on and save the school system from having to provide services.”