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This afternoon, Governor Perdue issued an executive order to the NC Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to eliminate all admission barriers that would prevent at-risk children from participating in the North Carolina Prekindergarten Program (formerly More At Four).

Governor Perdue’s order implements Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning’s ruling last month, which stated that access to high-quality prekindergarten was necessary to protect “the individual right of every child to have the equal opportunity to obtain a sound basic education.”

Although the media is likely to focus on Perdue’s order as part of a political “battle” between her and the General Assembly’s GOP leadership, the real story is that the Governor’s order is likely to make a huge positive difference in the lives of thousands of at-risk kids in North Carolina. Read More

On Friday, NPR’s Planet Money (available in podcast) featured research by University of Chicago economist James Heckman demonstrating how and why public investments in preschool have so many long-term benefits and such a high return on investment.

The cost to society of courts and crime is lowered. The cost of educating kids who are unruly and undisciplined in schools, that goes down. The benefits that the kid contributes to earnings and society, that goes up. And so on down the line.

The key is not, as many presume, that preschool raises children’s cognitive abilities (it does that, too, but that’s not where the biggest impact is), it’s that it builds and reinforces so-called “soft skills” that are critical to succeeding in the workplace and having healthy inter-personal relationships.  In fact, much recent research is showing that if a child does not develop these soft skills in their early years, they are likely to never develop them. Read More

Sources: N.C. State Demographer, July of each year; NC OSBM Post-Legislative Summary Reports; NC House Budget Appropriations Subcommittee on Health & Human Services, FY2011-13 Budget Recommendations

During the Great Recession, the number of North Carolina children under the age of five increased by more than 40,000, but state spending on child development programs and services via the NC Department of Health and Human services would contract dramatically under the House’s FY11-13 budget proposal. Read More

By Sheria Reid

If North Carolina state legislators have their way, more than 15,000 children who turn five between September 1 and October 16 in 2009 will not be eligible to enroll in the state kindergarten program. House Bill 150 (H150) and an identical Senate Bill 751 (S751), propose to change the cut off date for initial school enrollment in kindergarten from October 16 to August 31, effective fiscal year 2009-2010.

Under the current law, as long as a child will be five by October 16, that child may enter kindergarten in August of the school year in which the child turned five.  A child whose fifth birthday is as late as October 16 may enroll in a state funded program when school begins in August prior to the child reaching age five in October. The proposed bills, both entitled Every Child Ready to Learn, would not allow a child to enroll in August of that school year if he or she will not be five by August 31.  If this legislation passes, a child who turns five after August 31,2009 will have to wait until the school year beginning in August 2010 to enroll in a state funded kindergarten program. The fiscal note for H150 estimates that the change would result in 15,360 fewer children statewide beginning kindergarten in August 2009.

Based on the title of H150 and S751, AN ACT for modifying the school admission requirements to ensure that every child is ready to enter kindergarten and thereby reduce student dropout rates in later grades, both bills are being presented as having the potential to address some of the troubles that currently beset public education in North Carolina–an unacceptable dropout rate and school readiness.

However, there is insufficient evidence to conclusively support that delaying initial enrollment in school will decrease the dropout rate in the future. However, there is research that suggests that low income children are disadvantaged by lack of a quality pre-school experience and that the disadvantage magnifies as they age, leading to higher dropout rates. A student that is older than his or her peers in that grade level is more likely to become a dropout statistic.  The student who is six when beginning K or turns six within the first two months of beginning K, will reach the current legal dropout age of 16 nearly a full year before his or her peers.

The other stated purpose of these bills is to make certain children are ready to learn when they begin school.  Unfortunately, there is no solid scientifically based research that conclusively supports the notion that a six year old is automatically more ready to learn than the same child was one year earlier without some intervening experiences designed to prepare the child to be ready to learn.  In other words, just hanging around the house another year does not correlate with improved academic readiness for children who are already at-risk of academic failure.

A 2006 study on the impact of delaying initial entry into school, concludes that positive gains in achievement shown in students who are older when they begin school are more likely connected to their experiences prior to beginning school than any effect from delaying kindergarten for a year. In other words, middle class and higher children who have educational experiences prior to entering kindergarten benefit from the delay but no such benefit is seen for lower income children.

This change will most seriously impact children from lower income and working class families who are unable to afford private day care or pre-school, depriving them of any significant formal educational experience for as much as an additional school year.  Under current law, the mandatory school age is seven; parents already have the option to choose not to send their child to kindergarten when he/she turns five.  Some parents choose not to do so based on their beliefs as to the physical and emotional maturity of their child. The proposed change will only force parents who do not have options for providing a solid pre-school experience for their children to delay access to education for their children. 

In addition, it is essential to weigh the economic costs to families of the proposed change on low-income and working class parents.  They will have an extra year of child care expenses while waiting for their child to reach school age.

According to the fiscal note attached to H150, the proposed bills will have an economic benefit to state and local government. Assuming all factors remain constant regarding average daily membership, the fiscal note anticipates reduced state General Fund expenditures and reduced county government expenditures in public school spending for a period of twelve years beginning with implementation of the bill in 2009-10 fiscal year.

What is it about four-year-olds that politicians finds so irresistible? Last week Governor Easley proposed taking lGov. Easley with preschoolersottery money slated for school construction and using it for his pet preschool program, More-at-Four. I think it has to do with the fact that four-year-olds make politicians look good. Besides being cute and providing good photo opportunities for politicians, four-year-olds can’t fail. There are no standardized performance tests that four-year-olds need to pass. There’s no measure of preschool graduation rates. No under-performance worries whatsoever to mar the Governor’s record since the results of this program will take years to manifest.

Don’t get me wrong, preschool programs and early interventions are important, but Enough-at-Four already. What about the older kids who are also at risk and need assistance? What about the 19-year-olds who haven’t finished high-school in four years, who are at risk of dropping out of school? New figures show that more than 3 out of every 10 high school student in North Carolina don’t complete high school in four years; many of these students drop out before earning a diploma. Unlike four-year-olds, these kids don’t have time on their side.

Sure pimply faced teenagers don’t offer the same photo opportunities as preschoolers but they need our help just as much, if not more. Political leaders need to put their reputations on the line with more programs for at-risk teens, programs that keep kids in school and train them for jobs that pay a living wage.

Governor Easley has initiated the Learn and Earn high school reform initiative with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  This program, which allows high school students to obtain both a high school degree and an associate’s degree, is a step in the right direction but it needs to be expanded statewide. Currently, there are 33 high schools in the program and 20 more planned. Let’s hope that Governor Easley’s affection for teenagers grows to equal his love for preschoolers.