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Experts focus on building a framework from birth to third grade

On the day after the Republican-majority legislature completed its override of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the 2018-19 state budget, the governor’s Commission on Access to a Sound Basic Education convened to look beyond the latest policy and political clashes toward needs and issues likely to shape North Carolina’s near-term agenda.

The commission spent four hours in a tutorial on early childhood care and education. It was a day for listening and learning.

From my perspective, listening from the back row, a key finding emerged: An effective early childhood development system would offer supports for children from birth to eight years of age.

A birth-to-third-grade framework, of course, cuts across the existing governmental divide between a K-12 school system and the cluster of pre-school arrangements. While several speakers discussed a birth-to-eight framework, Kelly Maxwell, formerly at UNC-Chapel Hill and now at the national Child Trends nonprofit organization, provided an extensive outline of research and policy options.

She emphasized that no “magic bullet’’ or “single system’’ assures success for children by the third grade. “It’s not just your genes,’’ Maxwell said, but also the “cumulative’’ effects of relationships, experiences and environments that shape a young person’s health and learning.

In reaching the goal of learning to read well by the third grade, she said, “The strategies to get there are not just reading, reading, reading.” Rather, she said, the challenges involving arraying “high-quality’’ health services, family support, early care and education.

John Pruette, executive director of the state Office of Early Learning, spoke of the “power of continuum’’ from preschool to the K-12 system, but he also highlighted issues that arise in aligning early childhood programs with schools. The issues include differences in instructor licensing requirements as well as salaries that contribute to a churn of teachers from pre-K to elementary grades for higher pay.

Pruette pointed to the importance of smoothing the transition from preschool to formal schooling – requiring not only investing in expanded early childhood services but also strengthening the lower grades of school. Aside from an emphasis on literacy, he said, “a lot of what we know is that education reform in K-3 has been on hold.”

As it proceeded, the tutorial made clear that North Carolina has distinct strengths in what Susan Perry-Manning, state deputy secretary for human services, called its “array of federated programs.” The current birth-to-eight span is supported by state and federal child-care subsidies, federal Head Start, the state infant and toddler program, services for exceptional children, NC PreK, and Smart Start. Tracy Zimmerman, executive director of the NC Early Childhood Foundation, briefed the commission on the forming of a “Pathways Partners’’ coalition, including parental engagement, to support birth-through-eight development.

What’s more, the state has a rating system that has driven up the quality of child care providers. North Carolina is one of 15 states that meet nine of the 10 national quality standards.

And yet, many of the state’s young people remain untouched by what the state offers. Child care subsidies support 23 percent of eligible children. NC PreK, which serves 44 percent of eligible children, peaked at more than 33,000 children in 2008-09, but has been below 30,000 every year since. Funding for Smart Start, the state’s extensive infrastructure, peaked at $231 million a decade and a half ago, and now is at roughly $150 million.

As several speakers made clear, forging strong relationships – family, friends and teachers – with the state’s younger citizens is essential. It is not all about money, but to build a robust birth-to-third-grade framework would require more than North Carolina now spends. The commission is a half a year away from reaching conclusions and formulating recommendations.

The cloud hovering over its work comes in the form of the persistent legislative activity to reduce tax rates and diminish the state’s revenue flexibility and capacity. Economic growth of a magnitude to enable robust initiatives is unlikely. The ultimate deciding factor is whether the will of the people can be mobilized to mold the priorities of the state’s leaders.  

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is the Director of the Program in Public Life and Professor of the Practice at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and the Vice Chairman of EducationNC.