NC would save by expanding pre-K

It will be more difficult now for Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly to hesitate when it comes to more funding for pre-school programs and early childhood initiatives. The issue, which shouldn’t be an issue at all, became politicized as Republicans took over control of the legislature and seemed interested in dismantling anything connected to Democratic governors.

Now, Duke University researchers have provided exhaustive research data showing what educators and parents already could see: Having children enrolled in North Carolina’s state-supported early education programs makes them less likely to be placed in very expensive special education classes by third grade.

The data from the research, which came from a study covering the years 1995 to 2010, showed that access to the state’s prekindergarten program for 4-year-olds reduced the likelihood that kids in that program would be placed in third grade special education by 32 percent. That’s 32 percent, or nearly one third. And Smart Star, the brainchild of former Gov. Jim Hunt, cut the chances by 10 percent.

Smart Start, similar to the wildly successful federal Head Start program, invests in family services and child health care for kids from birth to age 5. It provide benefits lower-income families couldn’t get otherwise, and gives those children a better chance to go to kindergarten with the preparation they deserve.

Duke researcher Clara Muschkin proclaimed the results of the study as “yet another incentive” for North Carolina to expand its public early education program.

Of course. That it helps children is a fact. That it saves the state money is now a fact.

Consider: Researchers estimate the state spends about $8,000 on a third grader enrolled in regular school classes. For special education, the expense doubles.

In what universe is it not smart for the state to invest in something that saves half the cost of educating a child only a few years later?

Republicans changed the More at Four program in name, to NC Pre-K. It was a silly and purely political maneuver because More at Four had been created under former Gov. Mike Easley, a Democrat.

So be it. And the pre-K program has been part of the state’s need to speak to a legal necessity. Based on a lawsuit brought by low-wealth school districts, the courts have ruled that North Carolina’s children have a constitutional right to a “sound, basic education,” and that the state must invest in providing that to lower-income families and lower-wealth school districts.

But too many poor children still lack access to pre-K, as if the state can somehow provide for some but not for others and think that’s OK. It’s not. Legislators must provide full funding for the pre-K program, without hesitation. It is the right thing to do, simply on its face. It is the legal thing to do based on past court actions.

And as the Duke research shows, it is the smart thing to do in terms of the state’s investment in education. The research showed that pre-K programs reduced the number of kids with disabilities such as attention disorders, and other problems that typically put many kids into special education.

Meanwhile, a new study from the Washington Center For Equitable Growth also underscored the savings that could be realized by expanding early childhood education. The report said such teaching is the best way to close the educational achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families and improve the educational perfomance of American students overall. The United States now ranks 24th in math and science scores among 33 advanced nations. Moving up just five rungs would add 1.7 percent to the nation’s GDP and generate billions of dollars in extra tax revenue, the study found.

Here is an opportunity for Republicans to forge a positive path by fully investing in pre-K and early childhood programs, whether or not there is a “D” for Democrat somewhere in their history. This is a good, smart program for North Carolina and its children and its long-term finances.