Opinion: Quick Takes

Dumb Start

Smart Start may well be the most successful public policy initiative ever hatched in North Carolina – if one defines success as getting good press. Not just in North Carolina but nationally, the program has received lavish praise for “investing in children.”

Now, with four years of operation under its belt, Smart Start is ready to be evaluated on the basis of results. Unfortunately for its boosters, the early evidence does not bear out Smart Start’s reputation. Two studies, neither conducted by critics, have found it not to be the public-private partnership that Hunt promised in 1993, nor is it a successful “investment” in early childhood development.

The Audit

On August 6, State Auditor Ralph Campbell released a Special Report on the Smart Start Program. While Campbell’s office found some areas of improvement, particularly in the number of management problems at local partnerships, it concluded that Smart Start still operates without a uniform fund accounting system, without a uniform contract management and monitoring system, and without sufficient oversight by the state.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the audit found that Smart Start continues to fail to meet its private fundraising goals. For 1996-97,the program received $3.9 million in cash and in-kind contributions, far less than the $6.7 million in private funds required by the General Assembly in exchange for past increases in taxpayer support. Even this standard wasn’t particularly high; the legislature mandated only that Smart Start raise $1in private funds for every $10in taxpayer funds. Given the early rhetoric about Smart Start being a public-private partnership, the failure to meet the legislature’s low fund raising target represents a major disappointment. Indeed, the N.C Partnership for Children says it has exceeded the fundraising goal for 1997-98- but only after liberalizing the definition of fundraising to include gifts made to day care centers, not to Smart Start itself.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Study

On June 2, the N.C Partnership for Children released a study of the educational impact of Smart Start on kindergartners in Mecklenburg County. The study was conducted by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Schools and Smart Start of Mecklenburg County. It employed a survey of 5,715parents of kindergartners, providing demographic and Smart Start participation data. It also used different assessments to provide educational data. One, the Kindergarten Awareness Profile (KAP), is given to incoming students to identify potential learning difficulties. The other, the Kindergarten Assessment in Reading and Mathematics (KARM),is a periodic observation that serves as a measure of student achievement.

In brief, no statistically significant relationship was found between the KAP and KARM results and participation in the Smart Start program for less than three years. That is, preschoolers who spent a single year in a Smart Start-supported day care center or simply received a Smart Start-sponsored vision or hearing screening did not perform any better on the KAP screening or the KARM achievement assessment than preschoolers who did not. For those who spent three years in a Smart Start-supported center, the study did find a statistically significant – but small- difference. On the KAP screening, long-term Smart Start kids scored an average of 93.35 (on a scale of 0-102) vs. 91.05for kids without that experience. On the KARM,the point difference was similar: 32.18 (on a scale of 0-34)vs. 29.83.

Smart Start proponents trumpeted that last result as evidence of the effectiveness of the program. “Smart Start is working in Mecklenburg County and this study proves it,” said Ashley Thrift, chairman of the N.C Partnership for Children. He is mistaken. Past experience with Head Start, a federally funded preschool program created in the 1960s, shows that the difference between participating and nonparticipating preschoolers will shrink as both groups go through the same schools. A large gain in early educational outcomes for participants might be sustained over time, but a tiny one – 2 points on a test – is unlikely to persist. It is certainly not a worthwhile return on the huge investment that state taxpayers have made since 1993.

As I have pointed out in the past, most preschoolers will never benefit from Smart Start because they do not spend any time in day care centers. They are cared for at home by parents, relatives, or other providers, or in someone else’s home. Even many who do attend day care centers do so for less than three years, suggesting (in the wake of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg study) that they also will not benefit from Smart Start. If this is a successful government program, I’d hate to see an unsuccessful one.