RALEIGH – North Carolina’s two major preschool initiatives, Smart Start and More at Four, have been the subject of political claims and controversies ever since their creation. So it should have come as no surprise last month when a political uproar ensued after the House Early Childhood Education Committee circulated a set of proposed changes to the latter program, now called North Carolina Pre-K.
Smart Start, which funnels state tax dollars to local child care centers and other providers, is a signature program of former Gov. Jim Hunt. More at Four, which funds an intensive program for four-year-olds at a mixture of public and private settings across the state, is a signature program of former Gov. Mike Easley.
So in addition to providers and grant recipients looking out for their own bottom lines, the political constituency for the programs includes much of the state’s political establishment, until recently dominated by Hunt and Easley acolytes, as well as Wake Superior Court Judge Howard Manning, who has twice attempted to create a state constitutional right to preschool under the Leandro litigation.
Until recently, in other words, there has been little risk to the funding and structure of the programs. The Republican takeover of the General Assembly in 2010 changed that. The 2011-12 budget cut funding for both programs and moved the administration of what became North Carolina Pre-K from the Department of Public Instruction to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Gov. Bev Perdue objected to these moves, but her veto of the state budget was overridden by the legislature. She has continued to spar with legislative leaders about preschool funding, and her supporters have called for the N.C. Supreme Court to uphold Judge Manning’s ruling and treat the reductions not just as a matter of political disagreement but as a violation of the state constitution.
I doubt seriously that the Court will oblige. No reasonable interpretation of the plain language of the state constitution could be read as requiring the state provision of services that didn’t exist in North Carolina until the 1990s. Past lawmakers and governors had the power to create preschool programs. But they were under no constitutional obligation to do so, regardless of what eager lawyers and creative judges may have asserted in the past.
That having been said, there is a prudential case to be made for preschool intervention, albeit one not always consistently made by the programs’ advocates. Since the 1960s, several small-scale experiments have demonstrated the potential long-term benefits of intervening early in the lives of poor children who lack stable, two-parent families. Children who lack support at home tend to perform poorly in school, fail grades, and fail to graduate. Some of them, in turn, have children out-of-wedlock, become drug or alcohol abusers, become welfare recipients rather than workers, and enter the criminal justice system.
At each of these steps, then, such individuals impose extra costs on North Carolina taxpayers for education, health care, social services, and criminal justice. If a state-funded intervention early in life can head off these future costs, the result would be a net savings to taxpayers, not a net cost.
That’s the case. There is some evidence for it. However, preschool advocates fail to grapple with other relevant evidence, and have thus designed programs – such as Smart Start and North Carolina Pre-K – that do not really fit the bill.
For example, while university-based experiments with early childhood interventions have yielded promising benefits, it has proven hard to scale up the programs. The federally funded Head Start program, for example, has not accomplished its goal. Initial gains for participating students often fade out when they get into grade school, meaning that the promised long-term benefits don’t materialize.
Both the available research and real-world experience argue for focusing government spending on poor children with other risk factors – those from single-parent families, for example – while aiding other families through tax relief and education reform.
Instead, North Carolina Pre-K currently allows families with incomes as high as $50,000 to participate. Meanwhile, thousands of truly needy children are on the waiting list. That never made any sense. Thus the Republican proposal to set Pre-K eligibility at the poverty line was entirely reasonable, despite all the requisite gnashing of teeth from the usual suspects.
Less meritorious was the House proposal to exclude public schools from the list of potential Pre-K providers. While the fact that half the current providers are private for-profit or nonprofit centers is a strength of the program, that doesn’t mean that it would be wise to take that share to 100 percent by legislative fiat. There are some communities with high-poverty populations where local elementary schools may well be the only institutions capable of delivering the program at this point. Rather than mandating market shares by legislation, state policymakers should instead adopt strong, fair contracting guidelines and then award funding on the basis of quality and cost.
Now that the House Early Childhood Education Committee has backed off its initial approach, there’s a chance for cooler heads to prevail. By all means, let’s focus tax dollars on poor children. Pre-K should be a targeted program aimed at saving money in the long run, not laying the foundations for universal, tax-funded preschool. Such a middle-class entitlement would be neither affordable nor desirable.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.