In the past three decades, North Carolina has been a national leader in early education innovation through two award-winning programs, Smart Start and NC Pre-K (formerly More at Four). But in recent years, the General Assembly’s support for early childhood education has dwindled even as its citizens’ support has grown. In the 2010-2011 school year, Smart Start and NC Pre-K received a total of nearly $350 million in state funding.[i] By the next year, that amount had dropped to just over $280 million, and has edged even lower since.[ii]

 North Carolina Early Education Funding History

And while early education spending falls, the number of young children in North Carolina keeps rising.

So why is this a problem? Well, it’s simple – research shows that early education programs work. High-quality programs produce strong life outcomes for children from all backgrounds, and generate benefits that far outweigh the costs.

This is a brief synopsis of some of the research on early childhood education. In the coming weeks, Think will explore the topic in more depth.

Quality life outcomes

Strong, well-designed pre-K programs give all children substantial long-term benefits. These benefits include “gains in cognitive tests, improvements in social and emotional development, and improvements in school success including less grade repetition, less special education placement, and increased high school graduation.”[iii] In North Carolina, state pre-k evaluations “consistently find positive effects of participation on children’s performance in pre-k and kindergarten as well as longer-term effects on reading and math skills at the end of third grade.”[iv]

All of these benefits have significant implications for adult life – high school graduates have higher lifetime earnings, better health, and greater life expectancy than those who don’t graduate.[v]

If North Carolina saw a five percent increase in male high school graduation rates, and “if that same five percent not only graduated but went on to college at the same rate as typical male high school graduates, their average earnings would accrue an additional $81 million annually.”[vi]

Pre-K helps all children

Early childhood education programs show particularly large benefits for low-income children, who otherwise enter the American school system inadequately prepared. Gaps in cognitive, linguistic, and social skills that are apparent by the time children enter kindergarten set those children up for life-long academic and social disadvantages.

The early education programs that focus on small group learning and individualized, one-on-one teaching “are estimated to produce long-term cognitive effects equivalent in size to one half or more of the achievement gap between minority and white children or low-income and other children through the end of high school.”[vii] Additionally, the “vast majority” of modern programs show that “children from socio-economically disadvantaged families made as much or slightly more progress than their more advantaged peers.”[viii]

A positive spillover effect also benefits all children in the early grades, starting in kindergarten: teachers spend less time on remediation when underprivileged children come to school with experience in a pre-k classroom.[ix]

Benefits outweigh costs

Early education proponents, including President Obama, often quote this $7 to $1 statistic – “every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on.”[x] This ratio comes from a cost-benefit analysis of the Chicago Child Parent Centers (CPC), which have extremely similar designs and funding streams to state-level pre-K programs, and were operated by Chicago public schools.

Duke University researchers found that both Smart Start and NC Pre-K are associated with test score increases equivalent to about two months of additional achievement[xi], which has striking implications for the state’s economic growth. In North Carolina, “a five percent increase in male high school graduation rates is estimated to save North Carolina $152 million in annual incarceration costs and crime-related expenditures.”[xii]

“Nationally, the research is clear that effective preschool programs like North Carolina's permanently raise achievement, decrease dropout, and increase employment, productivity and earnings…” – Steve Barnett, Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research[xiii]

Prioritizing early education is not just the right thing to do for North Carolina’s children – it’s also the smart thing to do for North Carolina’s economy.



[i] North Carolina General Assembly Fiscal Research Division.

[ii] See note i.

[iii] Barnett, W. Steven. (February 25 2013). Getting the Facts Right on Pre-K and the President’s Pre-K Proposal. National Institute for Early Education Research. Available at

[iv] Peisner-Feinberg, Ellen. (Mar 30, 2014). “Large Scale Study Shows Power of Pre-K.” Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute. Available at

[v] Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. (2013). Better Education = Better Health.

[vi] Heckman, James J. (2013). “Invest in early childhood development.” Available at

[vii] See note iii.

[viii] Burger, Kaspar. (2010). How does early childhood care and education affect cognitive development? An international review of the effects of early interventions for children from different social backgrounds. Early Childhood Research Quarterly.

[ix] H. Ladd, C. Muschkin and K. Dodge. (2013) From Birth to School: Early Childhood Initiatives and Third-Grade Outcomes in North Carolina. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.

[x] See note iii.

[xi] Bartik, Timothy J. (March 18 2011). New evidence for large state and local returns from investments in preschool and child care: Duke University study of North Carolina’s programs. Available at

[xii] See note vi.

[xiii] Barnett, Steve. (December 7 2011). “Pre-k good investment.” Available at