The proposed changes in the Senate budget to one of Governor Easley’s finest policy initiatives, More at Four would be a major setback for our neediest children. The Senate guts the spend and changes the program into a child care subsidy program housed in the Department of Health and Human Services.
Without question, the changes would dramatically water down the quality of the More at Four program, and alter eligibility criteria such that some of the neediest students currently in More at Four programs – those with disabilities or whose parents do not work – either would no longer be eligible to participate or would ask of their parents a child care co-pay that they could not afford. It is clear that the very neediest children would not be able to access this fine program after 09-10 if present child care subsidy rules are maintained.
All this comes at a time when More at Four is being recognized as one of the finest and most effective early childhood intervention programs in the country. As Rochelle Williams blogged today, the Rutgers University National Institute for Early Education Research today released its State of Preschool Report 2008. More At Four is ranked equal best program in the nation. But the ranking came with a caveat:
“We are concerned that unless funding per child increases in North Carolina, programs will have to undercut quality…”
The best research on early childhood intervention stresses the need for targeted, quality programs. More at Four is both high quality and targeted at our neediest children. The Senate budget undermines the program’s quality and messes with the targeting.
Rigorous cost/benefit analyses of programs like More at Four nation-wide show that they produce a net economic benefit. The economic return on one dollar of investment in high quality targeted education programs for at risk, low income family three and four year olds averages around six dollars according to a recent study by Professors Arthur Reynolds and Judy Temple from the University of Minnesota. The Senate’s budget cuts and ill-advised re-casting of More At Four are false economy.
Double trouble for More at Four
It is not the only cloud on the horizon for More at Four, either. House Bill 539 would also mandate that the program would move over to DHHS and merge with the North Carolina Partnership for Children – the organization responsible for administering Governor Hunt’s signature program, Smart Start.
Questions as to the wisdom of this hastily hatched plan abound. One aim is to open the program to more students. That’s fine if they are at-risk. Otherwise, what is the aim given what we know about the relationship between effectiveness and the need for targeting? Will greater enrollment mean less spending per student? What happens to quality? What about pursuing evidence-based policies? Is that out the window now? Also: Are these programs similar such that administrative efficiencies would truly be achieved? What is wrong with the present administrative arrangment that needs changing? How will the merger affect the children served by More At Four, both in the transition period, and over the long haul as presumably, eligibility requirements change?
I don’t hear many answers to these questions. Alas, it is not at all clear that the many sponsors of H539 have them or have even thought to ask the questions.