BTC REPORTS, April 2009
By Steve Jackson, Public Policy Analyst
• There are currently legislative proposals to alter the administration, eligibility criteria and funding levels of More at Four, North Carolina’s nationally lauded education program for at-risk four-year olds.
• High-quality pre-kindergarten programs targeted at low-income children at risk of later academic failure are proven to have net economic benefits. A dollar spent today can save many more dollars later in welfare, education, health and justice-related expenditures.
• More at Four is a high-quality program that served around 30,000 children in 2007-2008. Eligibility for the program is narrowly targeted at low-income and special-needs children. Three-quarters of enrollees come from families with incomes at or below 130% of the federal poverty level and therefore qualify for free lunches. More than half of the children served in 2007-2008 had never been in a formal childcare or pre-school setting prior to entering More at Four; nearly every one of these children qualified for free or reduced-price lunches.
• Class sizes are small, teacher quality is high and there is evidence that the program is spurring an across-the-board improvement in teacher knowledge, especially in More at Four classrooms in public schools.
• Successive reviews by UNC-Chapel Hill researchers have concluded that learning rates in More at Four classrooms exceed forecasts and that students who have special needs learn at the same rates, at least, as their classmates.
• Teaching literacy skills to children before elementary school is vital; reading is essential to later learning. The quality of More at Four literacy instruction is high and is continuing to improve.
• Policymakers wanting to change More at Four should tread lightly. Any changes to eligibility rules need to protect child welfare first. Judgments of parents and their characteristics, history or status should be set aside. What matters is the emotional and material existence of the child.
• Changes to budgets should be done so that classroom instruction quality is not compromised. If difficult budget choices are to be made, funding per slot should be held constant.
• Administrative change must not come at the expense of child welfare. The process should be examined carefully before administrative changes and mergers with other programs are begun in order to properly assess any costs and benefits. Acting in haste now, especially considering the minor short-term savings may hurt child welfare. Using administrative change to initiate cuts that affect classroom instruction should be rejected.