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Preschool benefits students and N.C.

By Fannie Flono
Associate Editor

The bizarre appointment of prekindergarten opponent Dianna Lightfoot to head North Carolina’s early education division is a good signal that influential N.C. political leaders won’t be embracing President Barack Obama’s call on Tuesday for universal preschool.

Lightfoot’s already gone, having resigned last week two days after her hiring when news broke that she has publicly opposed prekindergarten, and had made controversial and offensive comments on Facebook and Twitter.

Unless new Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration is so inept that officials failed to do the most basic of background checks – in Lightfoot’s case it would have taken only signing on to a computer and typing in her name – the fact that she was considered knowing her background, let alone hired, shows disdain for public preschool.

Could this be the first wave of executive branch strategies to dismantle the nationally praised prekindergarten program? Hopefully not. But the Republican-led N.C. legislature has already tried to do that over the last two years. It slashed funding, instituted a copayment for participating families and lowered eligibility guidelines so many poor families wouldn’t qualify.

Then Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning, who has been overseeing for years state compliance with rulings in a school finance lawsuit, weighed in, calling the moves unconstitutional. He ordered them halted, saying they denied education access for all eligible at-risk 4-year-olds.

The legislature appealed but the N.C. Appeals Court sided with Manning. The co-pay and eligibility changes were stopped. Lawmakers did not restore funding but then-Gov. Bev Perdue issued an executive order last fall authorizing money to serve 6,300 additional children.

The attempts to dismantle preK in North Carolina have been shortsighted and wrongheaded. The state preschool program has been viewed as a national model. Last year, Rutgers University’s National Institute for Early Education Research gave N.C. plaudits for being one of just five states meeting all the benchmarks for a quality, cost-effective program.

Moreover, Obama’s push for universal preschool acknowledges something that N.C. lawmakers should take note of: The kind of quality preschool that North Carolina has been providing is an economic tool. It is not only a lure for businesses, but increases the tax-paying base and saves the state money long-term.

Research shows low-income students benefit significantly. They succeed better academically, graduate from high school more often and are more economically productive later in life. Economic impact studies have shown that every $1 invested in early childhood education saves taxpayers up to $13 in future costs.

Several studies undergird this finding, including one here in North Carolina, the Carolina Abecedarian Project. Last year, the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill released more data after following 101 of 111 participants in the study since they were infants – low-income and African-American, half who were enrolled in preschool and half not.

The results were impressive. According to the study of the adults at age 30, those who’d had preschool had significantly more years of education than those who didn’t; they were four times more likely to have earned college degrees; 23 percent of participants graduated from a four-year college or university compared with 6 percent in the group who did not attend preschool. Those with preschool were also more likely to own homes, have longer marriages, were less likely to repeat grades, need special education or get into future trouble with the law.

Some pooh-pooh preschool’s benefits, pointing to studies that show test-score gains for the students tend to evaporate by third grade. That’s been a refrain among some detractors of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ prekindergarten program.

Evidence is conflicting on that score. Head Start programs are pointed to most often for no lasting impact. Yet even with murky test score gains, more important and long-lasting benefits – self-sufficiency, higher education, staying out of trouble – were starkly evident. And those benefits held true even for participants in Head Start, David Deming at the Harvard Graduate School of Education reports.

Experts attribute these benefits to non-cognitive skills preschool provides that aren’t measured on tests – vital societal skills like patience, planning, cooperation and delaying gratification.

States around North Carolina recognize those benefits. Both Florida and Georgia have universal preK; Florida received the National Institute for Early Education’s top ranking for access; Obama cited Georgia’s lottery-funded preK as a model and was in the state Thursday to highlight it.

Last fall, South Carolina had a conference where business leaders, politicians and educators touted the value of early childhood education. Keynote speaker John A. Weinberg, senior vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, calculated that more early childhood education would generate a 16 percent return on investment per year for S.C.

N.C. leaders should pay attention to what these other states are doing. They see investments in early childhood education as a competitive advantage. Nine states plus the District of Columbia now fund free preschool for all 4-year-olds. Nearly half of all 4-year-olds and 20 percent of 3-year-olds were enrolled in state-funded or federally funded preschool programs in 2011. Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman has said the return on investment in preK is stronger than the stock market’s average performance since World War II.

Thankfully, Dianna Lightfoot won’t be heading N.C.’s preschool program. Her position that early childhood education for low-income children fosters “dependency on government and an entitlement mentality” is reflexive dogma that has no factual basis. Plus, it ignores documented benefits – financial benefits – for the state, its taxpayers and the students who participate.

Universal preschool is a worthwhile goal. Obama said Tuesday he plans to work with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child.

But in North Carolina, the fight goes on to ensure that every low-income child – children most at-risk – has such access. N.C. lawmakers’ machinations to reduce access have been shameful and harmful.

N.C. youngsters, particularly the poor, need the good start that quality preschool can give them. And as research shows, the state benefits greatly as well.

Email: fflono@charlotteobserver.com.
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