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Approval Expected for Ambitious Early-Years Plan in N.C.

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North Carolina would launch one of the most ambitious state efforts to provide early-childhood services for all children who need them and boost child-care quality statewide, under a measure that was nearing final approval in the legislature last week.

The Smart Start proposal, initiated by Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., would create public-private partnerships to expand child-care subsidies and offer early-childhood and parenting programs.

The plan has been opposed by some church-related schools and centers, which worry that it would impose costly new burdens and foster government intrusion into family life.

Nevertheless, the proposal is expected to emerge largely intact in the final version of the state budget, which has been stalled in recent weeks by unrelated issues.

The Governor, who has made early-childhood issues a cornerstone of his legislative agenda, has said he modeled Smart Start in part after a program launched in a Greensboro housing project by Robin Britt, his secretary of human resources.

State officials say it was crafted to address the concern that North Carolina has one of the highest rates of working mothers with children under 5, while ranking 39th in the nation on one rating of the health and well-being of children.

'Top-Down and Bottom-Up'

At the heart of Smart Start is a plan to set up nonprofit public-private partnerships at the state and local levels to revamp and improve early-childhood services.

The plan, to be funded at $20 million in the first year of the biennium, would set up 12 county-level partnerships bringing together those involved in child advocacy and child-development services.

These demonstration projects would be selected on a competitive basis and overseen by a panel made up of top state officials and appointees of the Governor and legislature.

The partnerships would "combine a top-down and bottom-up approach, with the state setting broad goals for outcomes and counties deciding how best to meet those goals,'' said Dick Clifford, the director of the division of child development in the state human-resources department.

The local funds would go toward such services as new and improved early-childhood education, home-visiting and parent-education programs, and steps to make child-care subsidies more widely available.

In the second year of the biennium, the plan calls for $40 million to continue the 12 partnerships and launch eight more.

The Governor's plan also includes several steps at the state level to improve child-care quality and availability. Those initiatives, which would cost $16.1 million in the first year, include:

  • Lowering adult-child ratios for infant and toddler care;
  • Raising income-eligibility standards to allow more families to get subsidized care;
  • Increasing the amount of a state child-care tax credit;
  • Offering child-care providers financial incentives to exceed minimum state quality standards; and
  • Offering training and stipends to improve child-care workers' skills.

The package also includes $5 million in the first year to insure that all children are fully immunized.

The state projects that full implementation of Smart Start--including partnerships in all 100 counties--would cost $235.6 million.

Lawrence Schweinhart, the chairman of the research division for the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, called the plan "the only piece of state legislation I'm aware of that has focused on improving the quality of existing early-childhood programs ... in such a high-visibility way.''

Cost Burden Feared

But some church-run schools strongly oppose a quality-enhancement provision that would require all centers, even if they do not accept government subsidies, to lower adult-child ratios and group sizes for infants and toddlers in three age categories.

The rule would cost churches that do not accept subsidies $27,000 annually and create an "unlevel playing field'' that would drive some centers out of business, said Joe Haas, the executive director of the North Carolina Christian School Association.

Smart Start's approach, including parenting and home-visiting programs, is "an intrusion of government into homes and doesn't recognize the parent as the primary care-giver,'' Mr. Haas added.

State officials counter, however, that participation in such programs would be voluntary, and that a relatively small percentage of church-run centers have raised objections to the ratio standards.

The plan would give church-run centers an extra six months to comply with the new requirements.

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