Early childhood development programs are not typically viewed as economic development initiatives, but they should be. Extensive research in this area finds that well-focused investments in early childhood development yield positive long-term public and private benefits. Furthermore, the return on early childhood development investments to the public far exceeds the return on most other economic development projects.
North Carolina has not done enough to ensure that access to quality early childhood development programs reach more children. The state dedicates just 1.1 percent of its General Fund budget to early childhood education.
Digging deeper, nearly 5,500 fewer Pre-K slots are available today than there were in 2009. This eroding state support contributes to the more than 7,200 children that were on the Pre-K waiting list last year. With an estimated 67,000 children eligible to participate in the Pre-K program, less than half are being served due to inadequate state funding. These are unfortunate realities for North Carolina despite studies showing that high-quality preschool can increase a child’s performance in the early school grades, boost high school graduation rates, improve chances of landing a job later in life and reduce criminal behavior, among other benefits.
For every dollar invested in quality child care and early education, taxpayers can save up to $13 in future cost. The NC Pre-K program is consistently rated as one of the highest-quality programs in the nation. Annual NC Pre-K evaluations show that students in the program learn better, are less likely to need special education, and have better literacy and math skills than non-participants. Accordingly, eroding state support equates to a big missed opportunity to position North Carolina to compete and thrive.
Boosting public investment in other early childhood initiatives would also support the development of North Carolina children. Expanding access to the Child Care Subsidy Program, by providing more child care subsidy slots, would help more low-income workers afford safe quality care for their children while they earn a living. Boosting state support for the Smart Start program – an innovative public-private partnership initiative that helps ensure that students arrive to school ready to learn – would help even more children begin their formal schooling ready to learn. The NC Infant-Toddler Program provides supports and services for families and their children, birth to three, who have special needs.
Strong investments in students’ early learning years, when their minds are rapidly developing, prepare those students for an enriching and rewarding K-12 experience. When children embark upon their elementary years prepared and ready to learn, the cost of K-12 education is reduced, since students are able to build upon the skills they gained through early learning and fewer of them are likely to be placed in special education. The long-term benefits of early childhood investments offer promising outcomes for children, families, and North Carolina’s economy.