Op-Ed

In NC, a promising children’s story with an unfinished ending

Preschool students join hands as teachers use puppets to help improve classroom management and student behavior while building children's social-emotional skill and positive behavior skills at Hillandale Elementary School in Durham, NC. It is part of a program being developed in cooperation with the Duke Center for Child & Family Policy.
Preschool students join hands as teachers use puppets to help improve classroom management and student behavior while building children's social-emotional skill and positive behavior skills at Hillandale Elementary School in Durham, NC. It is part of a program being developed in cooperation with the Duke Center for Child & Family Policy. cseward@newsobserver.com

At an event in downtown Raleigh last weekend, Republican State Sen. Chad Barefoot and Democratic State Sen. Jay Chaudhuri sat down with a troupe of preschoolers and read a story together. The children’s tale was about two people who “don’t agree on anything” – except the importance of reading.

It’s not a bad parable for state politics, which finds Republicans and Democrats disagreeing on a lot of things – but not about the importance of reading and childhood education.

State leaders are proudly united in the belief that we must dramatically improve reading skills for our youngest students, since early literacy is the foundation for all of the skills and knowledge that come later.

Our state has a remarkable history of bipartisan support for early childhood education. Both parties have worked together to make North Carolina a national leader in giving our youngest citizens a strong start in life.

It’s time to build on these successes. While North Carolina ranks first among states in the quality of early childhood care, we rank 41st in availability. More than 30,000 young Tar Heels are eligible for N.C. pre-K, but don’t have funding.

There’s a mountain of evidence that shows how effective these programs can be for students fortunate enough to take part. A recent study by Nobel-winning economist James Heckman looked at the long-term outcomes for North Carolinians who benefited from strong early childhood programs in the 1970s. More than three decades later, the impact persists: they have better academic performance, better health, higher average incomes, and fewer run-ins with the law.

Last month, the New York Times Magazine pointed out that North Carolina was the site of some of the earliest and most influential research on the effectiveness of early childhood education, helping transform our understanding of how young children learn.

We’ll be talking about that legacy at next week’s Emerging Issues Forum in Raleigh, and working with some of the state’s most influential leaders and top education specialists to map out a better future for all of North Carolina’s kids.

Business titans like Jim Goodnight of SAS, Venessa Harrison of AT&T and Jim Hansen of PNC Bank will advocate pre-K access as a workforce development issue, and Blue Cross-Blue Shield NC and the NC Early Childhood Foundation will show how family-friendly workplaces can strengthen competitiveness.

To provide the comprehensive care that our children deserve, we need everyone at the table.

Philanthropies like the Duke Endowment, the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, the Belk Foundation and others across the state are helping communities big and small pilot smart reforms to their early childhood initiatives. The North Carolina Association of County Commissioners is focused on new strategies to improve services for children and families, sharing data and best practices across the state. Smart Start partnerships in eastern North Carolina have been exploring new strategies to drive local collaboration. Lawmakers are working to create, for the first time, a coordinated strategy for all public services to children between the ages of zero and eight. And the NC Pathways to Grade Level Reading Project, led by the NC Early Childhood Foundation, is working to pull all these ideas into alignment.

This is what happens when you can find truly common ground. Driven by sound evidence and a shared sense of fairness, people at every level, from every political persuasion, can pull together.

All this strategy work may not make for a good children’s book, but if we can pull it off, it’ll be a public policy thriller.

Leslie Boney is the director of the Institute for Emerging Issues at NC State University. The Emerging Issues Forum, “kidonomics,” will take place February 5-6 in Raleigh.

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