Thousands of WNC children could be impacted if N.C. legislators cut Smart Start, More at Four early education efforts

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Editor’s note: Yesterday, the North Carolina Senate unveiled a budget plan that proposes cutting funds from the Smart Start early education program and doing away with The North Carolina Partnership for Children, Inc., a nonprofit that runs Smart Start.

Dr. Olson Huff, a Western North Carolina-based pediatrician, child advocate, and board chairman of  The North Carolina Partnership for Children, said in a statement issued yesterday, “In one fell swoop, the Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Committee announced a plan to destroy years of early childhood progress that has raised third grade outcomes and given thousands of children an opportunity to succeed.”

The Photo Essay above and the article below about the House proposal are part of a Special Report focusing on the early education of the youngest citizens of Western North Carolina.

RALEIGH — Advocates for early childhood education are alarmed by proposals from House Republicans that will sharply cut More at Four and Smart Start and may jeopardize federal matching funds.

The proposals before Republican-controlled House appropriations committee call for cutting for more than $30 million from the $161 million More at Four program and $37.6 million from the $182 million Smart Start program.

“Dramatically reducing funds to Smart Start and More at Four will be reversing what North Carolina has spent the last 18 years building — a quality early care and education system that prepares children for kindergarten and life,” said Sonia Gironda, executive director of Smart Start of Henderson County.

In the 17 westernmost counties of North Carolina, there are 50,023 children 5 years old and younger, with 12,230 of them enrolled in child care or preschool programs.

In addition, the subcommittee on education has approved moving More At Four from the Department of Public Instruction to the Division of Childhood Development under the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, a change that could eliminate matching federal education funds.

Republicans acknowledge the value of the programs but say the budget deficit requires cuts in all areas of state spending.

“A lot of good programs are having to be cut back or reduced. Some of that I hope will turn out to be temporary until the economy turns around,” said Rep. Hugh Blackwell, R-Burke County, who serves as chairman of the appropriations committee’s subcommittee on education.

Democrats say the cuts — following years of smaller reductions — will shortchange children from poor families and dull North Carolina’s reputation as a state with a strong education system.

“We’re undercutting what made us so strong,” said Rep. R. Phillip Haire, a Democrat and former appropriations committee co-chairman who represents Haywood, Jackson, Swain and Macon counties.

Haire said the most important part of education is early education.

“That’s where we need to get kids interested and involved in education,” Haire said. “If we lose them there, we’re going to lose them down the road when they are in high school and then they drop out.”

Smart Start provides state funds for high-quality child care and health services and learning for children from birth to age five. More at Four provides funds for preschool care and education for at-risk 4-year-olds.

Tracy Zimmerman, communications director for The North Carolina Partnership for Children, Inc., an umbrella organization for the state’s 77 local Smart Start partnerships, said her organization’s concern about the cuts is matched by concern about additional provisions in the Republican proposal.

One provisions would cut the administrative budget for all local partnerships by 50 percent. Zimmerman said such a reduction in funds for rent, office costs and salaries at local partnerships “means it will be impossible for them to stay open.”

Sen. Martin L. Nesbitt, Jr., D-Buncombe, said if the decision on cuts comes down to More at Four versus Smart Start, Smart start will likely have wider support because it serves more children.

“It’s absolutely essential that we keep Smart Start,” Nesbitt said. “More at Four is more of a case of whether you keep a high level program that serves fewer people.”

John Pruette, executive director of the Office of Early Learning at the Department of Public Instruction, said he understand that the state’s budget deficit will require cuts for many programs, but he is concerned about reversing progress made by the $160 million More at Four program.

“It’s a reality within these economic times that programs will be be cut,” Pruette said. “I just would want any (cuts) that would jeopardize the integrity of the program and the profound results we’ve had for children.”

Pruette added that moving More at Four out of DPI will mean the state will not be able eligible for matching federal education funds it now receives.

Blackwell said his subcommittee had not be told of any impact from the move out of DPI on matching funds. He said the change may have to be reconsidered as the budget moves through the legislature.

“If that is the case, I have not been made aware of it,” he said. “I need to ask the staff to confirm for me that the staff’s determination was that we wouldn’t lose finds.”

The House appropriations committee approved its proposed budget bill earlier this month. The Senate is currently working on its version. Republican leaders have pledged to approve a budget by the end of June. The next fiscal year begins July 1.

WNC CHILDREN AND EARLY EDUCATION BY THE NUMBERS

County Number of children 5 years old and younger
Number of those children in licensed childcare/preschool there
Avery 1,022 304
Buncombe 16,141 4,228
Cherokee 1,564 517
Clay 512 209
Graham 604 168
Haywood 3,484 964
Henderson 7,286 1,226
Jackson 2,387 535
Macon 2,213 575
Madison 1,226 272
McDowell 3,139 699
Mitchell 990 267
Polk 966 85
Rutherford 4,512 1,038
Swain 1,120 652
Transylvania 1,760 295
Yancey 1,097 196
TOTALS 50,023 12,230

Source: Sonia Gironda, Executive Director of Smart Start of Henderson County.

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Learn more about Smart Start and More at Four:

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About the Author

Ned Barnett

Ned Barnett is a contributing reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at edwinbbarnettjr@gmail.com.

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