Wheeler: Less for kids will cost us

Average yearly cost of providing More at Four services to help an at-risk 4-year-old be ready for school in North Carolina: $5,031.

Average yearly cost of housing a convict in a North Carolina prison: $27,000.

Do we really need to spend any time connecting those dots and comparing those dollars?

Too many children who start school behind their peers stay behind, struggling in the face of eroding expectations and eventually dropping out. A high school dropout is far more likely to end up in prison than a graduate; about 75 percent of North Carolina inmates are dropouts.

But for good measure, let's throw in what North Carolina would save in health care costs if the 53,800 students who dropped out in 2010 had graduated ($492 million), how much community colleges would save in remediation costs each year if all students were ready for college ($97.4 million) or how much the state could see in crime-related savings and revenue if the male high school graduation rate increased by just 5 percent ($233 million).

That last figure alone, courtesy of the Alliance for Excellent Education, would cover the $161 million the state spent on 32,000 at-risk 4-year-olds last year and pay for 14,500 more. About 60,000 children qualify for More at Four.

Well, I should say qualify for N.C. Pre-Kindergarten, which is what More at Four is called now that state lawmakers have moved it from the state Department of Public Instruction into the Department of Health and Human Services and cut $32 million from its budget.

Those cuts didn't sit well with Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr., who ruled as part of the continuing Leandro case on education equity that all of the state's low-income 4-year-olds deserve access to the program. The state appealed the decision, but all parties want to skip appellate court and go directly to the N.C. Supreme Court for a ruling.

At a recent public forum in Knightdale, Wake Ed Partnership officials presented data indicating that the low-performing eastern Wake schools are inching in the right direction, and they offered tips to continue that trend.

No. 1 was this:

If you want better schools, "you really need to focus on working with kids out here becoming reading proficient," Wake Ed President Steve Parrott said. "It starts with getting them ready for kindergarten. You've gotta start before kindergarten."

Wake Ed's Tim Simmons was blunt: If a child is still struggling to read in third grade, it takes a herculean effort - and lots of money, no doubt - to alter the trajectory of that child's life. The expectation becomes that the child can't read.

"That kid is cooked," he said.

Senate leader Phil Berger has said that Manning's desire to expand More at Four - one of the nation's top five early childhood programs - would create a massive new welfare program.

"Welfare" is so pejorative, but call it whatever you want. Even the most obtuse among us have to acknowledge that a program that helps poor children succeed at school will reduce the need for other "welfare" programs in the long run and pay for itself over and over again. And not just in dollars. In better lives, in better citizens, in a better society for all of us.