Thursday, August 25, 2011

A sound, basic education starts early

Here's a News and Observer about a few of the changes we're already seeing in Triangle public schools as a result of budget cuts.
  • Teacher assistants not working on days students aren't there and taking a pay cut
  • Fewer janitors and other support staff
  • Fewer assistant principals
Here's the article

I'd also like to share a few stories about budget cuts to the Smart Start program that came out earlier this month. Local Smart Start operations are faced with trying to provide high quality early education to low income and other families in need of the services while absorbing an 18% loss in available funds.

  • A literacy program and a program that helps children with developmental delays have been cut in Wake County.
  • Local Smart Start offices will be forced to provide fewer services to fewer children.
  • These cuts also impact nonprofits that work in partnership with Smart Start, like nonprofit literacy groups.
  • The Partnership for Children of Greene and Lenoire Counties is dealing with a 22% cut in state funding. Executive Director Steve Sylvester commented, “We’ve been dealing with budget cuts for the last few years, but we’ve been able to combine some programs,” Sylvester said. “It hasn’t impacted children as much as this one. This one is hurting children — no two ways about it. We’ve been cut so much now it’s really, really beginning to hurt us.” Programs that are taking a hit include Parents as Teachers, which creates activities and local playgroups for parents and children.
August 10th article on Wake County

August 2nd article about Greene and Lenoir Counties

Early childhood has been a hot topic in North Carolina lately because budget cuts to More at Four, another early childhood education program that provides services for low income families, faced changes including steep budget cuts, a move from the Department of Public Instruction to the Department of Health and Human Services, and the charging of a fee for some families for the service and reserving fewer slots in the program for low income families. Advocates for the program felt that these changes not only undermined the program's focus on early education, not just child care, but that the program's ability to put low income children on equal footing for elementary school was completely undermined. North Carolina's Supreme Court, through ongoing litigation known as Leandro, has decreed that the state has a constitutional mandate to provide a sound, basic education for every child. Counties involved in the litigation brought the argument to court that the cuts to More at Four violated this mandate, and Judge Manning, the district court judge charged with overseeing the Leandro ruling, agreed. Specifically, he ruled that charging a fee for the More at Four Services was unconstitutional in the state because it erects a barrier to services that the state has set up to meet the requirement to provide a sound, basic education. This seemed like a success for early childhood education.

However, the News and Observer today reported that the legislative branch and executive branch are embroiled in figuring out what Judge Manning's order actually means for implementation. The governor issued a directive to state agencies to come up with a plan to serve all children in need with the More at Four services. But the resources aren't there to do that. And members of the state legislature are appealing Judge Manning's order in further litigation. In the meantime, 6,000 fewer children are being served through the More at Four program - now called NC Pre-K - than last year. It's sad to learn that hundreds of children are on waitlists for the program, and that's a problem that existed before this year's budget cuts.

I won't debate the merits of different pre-K programs. Both More at Four and Smart Start are highly regarded. But it's worth noting that Smart Start, as a public-private partnership, has local flexibility so that each program can adapt as best it can to meet the needs of the counties it serves. But how much adapting must they do? The staff and teachers in Smart Start programs are doing what they've always done - struggling to get as much done as they can with what they have.

It's such a beautiful idea - the right to a sound, basic education. Giving young children tools to succeed in education no matter their background is another beautiful idea, and one that a wide spectrum of policymakers agree is effective. So this tangled reality is heart-breaking to see.

What can we do? Talk to legislators and tell them you believe in early childhood education. Find out who represents you in North Carolina here. And use your dollars to show policymakers that organizations like Smart Start and the North Carolina Partnership for Children are worth supporting. That's why I'm going on this bike ride and asking for your contributions.

I know there are hard decisions to make in this economic climate. But children - even if they are four years old - are the foundation on which we build our future. Things may be tough now, but we cripple ourselves as a society if we let today's problems damage the future. Children are going to need that sound, basic education - and a whole lot more - in an increasingly techy world if our country is going to stay strong. We know that. There's the policy argument.

But aside from policy - shouldn't every child have the chance to experience learning early on, in a supportive environment? I learned just from a cursory glance at Smart Start's Facebook page that a third of North Carolina children live in families where no parent has full time, year round employment. Can you imagine what hardship that creates and what the chances are for a four year old to arrive at kindergarten prepared when his or her family is handling that? I also learned North Carolina is ranked 38th in a survey of child wellness in the 50 states.

We can do better. Please donate.

Note: The East Durham Children's Initiative, another nonprofit supported by BIKE NC, also focuses on innovative early childhood education services like Parent U, which gives incentives to new parents to participate in an eight week curriculum on how to help their children develop in the crucial first three years of life, along with developmental screenings and other resources.


  1. Smart Start and the Partnership are a great choice, AGK. Very important up here in the mountains where so many children live in near-poverty. Let me know what I can do to help.


  2. Thanks John in the mountains! I'll be in touch.