Last week, the North Carolina legislature overrode Governor Bev Perdue’s veto and approved a budget that cuts the state’s two major early childhood programs by 20 percent. These cuts are to the state’s “More at Four” preschool program for at-risk four-year-olds, and to the state’s “Smart Start” program, which provides a wide range of services from birth to age five.
As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, there is good research evidence supporting both of these programs. I used the evidence from Duke University researchers to calculate that for each dollar that North Carolina invests in More at Four and Smart Start, the state would receive economic development benefits of $8.79. These economic development benefits are the resulting increase in per capita earnings of state residents.
These cuts to early childhood programs are part of an overall state budget that cuts other state programs, and allows various temporary increases in state taxes to expire.
What can be said about such budget cuts to programs backed by high-quality research? I think this suggests that the future of early childhood education in the U.S. is quite uncertain. There are substantive arguments from research about the payoffs to high-quality early childhood programs. There is significant political support for these programs. But there are still many policymakers who see early childhood programs as “nice, but inessential” to core public goals of greater economic prosperity. In any event, some policymakers perceive early childhood programs to be considerably less important than the policy goal of lower taxes.
Changing the political balance may in part rely on research, such as mine, that points to early childhood programs having considerably higher economic development benefits than any adverse effects caused by the required taxes to finance these programs. But it also depends on these programs delivering broad benefits to many households, that these households understand and value enough to affect how they vote. Finally, it depends upon a business community that values the long-term benefits offered by high-quality early childhood programs.