How much investment on early childhood is 'legal?'

Early childhood programs were largely protected during Michigan's budget battles this year, even though advocates such as Michigan Children's Jack Kresnak believe EC remains at risk. The House Education Committee has been holding hearings on early childhood education in Lansing in recent weeks.

A policy battle raging 1,000 miles away, however, may have a bearing on how states such as Michigan finance -- or limit -- early childhood programs.

North Carolina's More at Four pre-kindergarten program (recently renamed the North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten Program) provides an early learning experience to more than 30,000 children at risk of school failure each year. Earlier this year, the North Carolina Legislature cut funding by 20 percent, but Superior Court Judge Howard Manning struck down a funding formula in July that seemed to limit slots for at-risk students, as well as a provision that allowed the state to charge a co-pay to parents.

In a decision that could have major repercussions, Manning has held that pre-kindergarten programs are necessary to protect children's constitutional right to a sound education.

Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue has since issued an executive order directing state agencies to accept all at-risk children into the program, although it is unclear where the money will come for to pay for it. Republicans have criticized the move as a budget-buster. In the mean time, the state's attorney general has appealed the case to the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Bridge Magazine's Chris Andrews talked with Ellen Peisner-Feinberg, senior scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute and research associate professor in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, about the case. She has conducted research that has shown North Carolina's More at Four Program to be effective in improving learning outcomes. (Results similar to findings on Michigan's own early childhood efforts.)

Bridge: Is this ruling a big deal? Or is it a matter of one judge who will be overruled?

A: I think it is a big deal just because Judge Manning has been presiding over this case for 12 years or so. The case resulted in the original establishment of the More at Four program. I can't speak to those feelings between the Legislature and the judge, but he gets listened to. This case is a very big deal in North Carolina, and it resulted in a change in how state funds are distributed to local education agencies, it resulted in the establishment of this pre-K program.

Bridge: What is the general legal terrain right now about access to pre-K services?

A: The only states I can think of that have some kind of legal requirements to offer pre-K education are New Jersey and North Carolina. In general, most states are doing this on a voluntary basis. They see the value of pre-K education in terms of having children better prepared for school, in terms of resulting in less special education, in terms of more children who end up being successful adults.

Bridge: What are the most striking findings out of recent research on early childhood learning?

A: There is continuing to be a growing body of evidence on the positive effects of pre-K experiences. One thing that is very well-established is that higher-quality experiences are better for children. There's no doubt about that. The evidence started accumulating in the early 1990s, and it has just continued to grow and be supported in the research. 

Another important piece of research is the long-term impact. Having these kinds of experiences has positive effects not just in the pre-K year but going into the early school years. With the More at Four program, we looked at reading and math scores at the end of third grade. We found that for poor children, the ones who went to  More at Four were performing better. That's despite the fact that they all had different experiences in kindergarten, first grade, second grade, third grade. There still is the lasting impact of the pre-K experience.

The third really important finding is that these programs have an even stronger positive effect on the children who are at greater risk for not being successful when they get to school.

Bridge: What states are doing the best job in creating an efficient and large early childhood learning system? How are they doing it?

A: The National Institute for Early Education Research and rates every state in terms of 10 key benchmarks that we know from research are related to having a high-quality program. Things like having teachers who have good qualifications, having a set of learning standards, having good class-size. Only five states met all the benchmarks: North Carolina, Rhode Island, Alaska, Alabama and Louisiana. (Editor's note: Of the 40 states reviewed by NIEER, Michigan came in at No. 23 on the benchmark scale, scoring 7 of a maximum possible 10.)

In building large programs, the first thing is to make sure you are providing high-quality education. Just providing a large or an expensive program isn't what you want to do in terms of having a positive impact for children. InNorth Carolina, we went from serving 1,200 children the first year to more than 30,000 children in the last few years -- and the quality of the program and the standards were still maintained. They were still continuing to improve the educational levels of the staff, maintaining class-size and child-staff ratios.

(The state) continued to keep the funding behind it. They had a requirement for some local match as well, and they set program standards that local sites had to meet.

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction periodically monitored the quality of the programs. The one area that they saw needed improvement was in terms of the educational qualifications of the teaching staff among teachers in private settings. Their goal is for teachers to have a bachelor's degree and a birth-to-kindergarten teaching license so that they really have the background and training to provide high-quality education. They provided a program to help teachers work toward that and monitor whether teachers were continuing to make progress.

Bridge: What is the return on investment on early childhood investments?

A: There are several studies that have actually looked at this from an economic perspective. Most of the studies have tended to look at things like model preschool demonstration projects, and there are a number of studies that have actually looked at the economic return for that. It's  anywhere between two dollars and seven dollars for every dollar spent, depending on the study and depending how long-term you look at the outcome. Generally everybody has found some positive return on investment.

Editor's note: The Center for Michigan, Bridge Magazine's parent organization, is a member of the Children's Leadership Council of Michigan, an alliance of organizations advocating for investments in early childhood education.

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