BY GREG BOROM
What do a majority of North Carolina voters and a Nobel Prize winner have in common? They both believe in investing in quality, early childhood development.
“The rate of return for investments in quality early childhood development for disadvantaged children is 7-10 percent per annum through better outcomes in education, health, sociability, economic productivity and reduced crime,” according to information at the Heckman Equation website (www.heckmanequation.org). The website showcases the research and findings of James Heckman, a Nobel Memorial Prize winner in economics, on early childhood investments.
North Carolina voters may not have dived into the economic returns on this investment with Heckman’s rigor, but they have affirmed his conclusion. A September 2015 poll found majorities of Democrats, Republicans and Independents support investments in early childhood programs in the state — including expanding access to Smart Start, Pre-K, teacher training and home visiting programs.
More than four in five (83 percent) of North Carolina voters believe that investments in early childhood programs will benefit North Carolina’s economy in the short and long term. Voters ranked ensuring children get a strong start as a top priority for policymakers, second only to jobs and the economy and well ahead of reducing the tax burden on families. (The poll was conducted by the bipartisan team of Public Opinion Strategies and Hart Research for the First Five Years Fund and the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation.)
Advocates in Western North Carolina have known this investment strategy for quite some time. We’ve long observed that access to affordable, high-quality early childhood care and learning settings promotes opportunity and success for parents and their children. It is a two-generation approach of supporting parents and young children. When parents have resources to attend to their child’s healthy development — including being able to enroll them in quality programs while at work or in school — you get stable employment and healthier children.
For many years, North Carolina was the shining example of a state eager to invest for the long term in early childhood. Unfortunately, our current legislature has not prioritized investments to meet existing needs. The North Carolina Legislature and Gov. Pat McCrory have approved budgets that shortchange early childhood investments and have changed eligibility guidelines that have left some parents and children on the sidelines.
There are three N.C.-funded programs that work toward the goals of access, affordability and quality in early childhood settings: the child care subsidy program (aka vouchers), the North Carolina Prekindergarten Program and Smart Start (aka North Carolina Partnership for Children). Buncombe County Partnership for Children has excellent information on these programs on their website, including a great side by side comparison.
The child care subsidy program provides income-eligible parents who are working or in school/college a voucher to cover part of the cost of licensed early childhood, preschool, and after-school learning and care programs. The cost of quality centers can be $7,000 – $10,000 per year for a child. The voucher helps parents meet that expense. By using the program, children are in safe, quality settings that parents might otherwise not be able to afford — and keeps parents in the workforce. This program serves about 2,500 children in Buncombe County.
The NC Pre-K Program provides high-quality educational experiences to enhance school readiness for eligible 4-year-old children. It is a free program, providing 6 ½ hours of preschool classroom time. It serves about 300 children in Buncombe County.
Smart Start was created in 1993 to improve school readiness through an innovative public/private partnership. Policymakers established Smart Start as a public/private partnership, and independent, private organizations work in all 100 North Carolina counties through The North Carolina Partnership for Children Inc. Smart Start gives communities local control to deliver high-quality outcomes for young children.
Every day, these programs write success stories for a parent and a child in North Carolina, such as the following:
• Child care vouchers helping a mother stay in school to complete a degree in health care that leads to better pay
• A mother using vouchers to stay employed and advance up a career ladder at a local bank
• A victim of domestic violence regaining economic stability as a single mother, thanks to the voucher program.
As awareness and support builds for investing in the First 2,000 Days of a child’s life, we need leadership at every level of government to find the resources to take our state to the next level. Local business owners whose employees utilize child care vouchers, school teachers, economic development planners, law-enforcement officers, mothers and fathers all have compelling self- and collective interests at stake.
Let’s elevate this bipartisan issue during 2016 elections. Encourage candidates to support the high-yield investment that quality early childhood programs can bring to our parents, children and communities.
Greg Borom is director of advocacy for Children First/Communities In Schools of Buncombe County. The local nonprofit provides children and their families with supports that help them succeed in their schools, communities and homes. Children First/CIS also advocates for policies that support families with local and state policy makers. To find out more, go to www.childrenfirstcisbc.org