"Having a very austere budget to begin with and then losing 20% (of our budget) was nearly our undoing altogether," says Nancy Alenier, executive director of Madison County's Smart Start program. "It was only due to the grace of the leadership at Mars Hill College - who now donates our offices and associated facility costs - that we are still able to operate." Children and families pictured here participate in a the agency's 'Kith & Kin' program, which organizes groups of young children and their caregivers for educational activities and information, referrals and support for the adults. Photo courtesy of the Madison County Partnership for Children and Families.

Administrators struggling with fewer funds, more demands

“Having a very austere budget to begin with and then losing 20 percent (of our budget) was nearly our undoing altogether,” says Nancy Alenier, executive director of Madison County’s Smart Start program, in an email. “It was only due to the grace of the leadership at Mars Hill College – who now donates our offices and associated facility costs – that we are still able to operate.” Here, children and families participate in one of the agency’s programs that brings of young children and caregivers together for educational activities, referrals and support. Photo courtesy of the Madison County Partnership for Children and Families.

There’s no bundle of joy in the newest North Carolina budget for early childhood education, program administrators in Western North Carolina say.

For the second year in a row, two highly regarded state programs – Smart Start and the NC Pre-Kindergarten Program – will operate on reduced budgets, meaning fewer children served.

Administrators fear that progress made ensuring the well-being and school-readiness of North Carolina’s youngest residents will unravel as a result.

The two program budget reductions were part of sweeping cuts the N.C. General Assembly made throughout state government last year when it adopted the state’s $19.7 billion budget. The Republican-written spending plan, which the N.C. State Board of Education said would do “irreparable harm” to schools and students, was formulated to cut taxes and spending.

“When our data comes out in the fall, I think we are going to see some of the progress we’ve made start declining,” said Sonia Gironda, executive director of Smart Start of Henderson County. “We’re going to see more dental care problems because we had to scale our dental care program back by more than half.”

“We’re losing ground,” said Janice Edgerton, executive director of the Region A Partnership for Children, the Smart Start partnership serving Clay, Cherokee, Haywood, Graham, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties, as well as the Qualla Boundary.

Nearly 6,000 fewer NC children now in NC Pre-K

In its 2011 session, the General Assembly cut the budgets of Smart Start and NC Pre-K (then called More at Four) by 20 percent.

The cuts affected a lot of children. Counted in the 2010 Census were 632,040 N.C. boys and girls younger than 5. Among them, 260,480 in March 2011 were enrolled in regulated childcare centers and family childcare homes, according to the N.C. Division of Child Development and Early Education. The state subsidized childcare for 84,832 of the children in 2010.

The state has many reasons for doing so. Safe, affordable childcare makes parents better, more dependable workers, according to a study by the Insight Center for Community Economic Development. Family issue absences cost the state economy $2.75 billion annually, far more than the $670 million in state 2011-2012 early childhood education appropriations, the study concluded.

Early childhood education also saves taxpayers money by reducing the number of juvenile delinquents, prisoners and welfare recipients, the study states.

Another study cited by the Division of Child Development and Early Education last October stated that economically disadvantaged children enrolled in NC Pre-K did better in reading and math than similar children not enrolled in the program.

NC Pre-K is designed to provide “high-quality” pre-kindergarten educational programs for 4-year-olds deemed “at risk” because of health, developmental progress, family income, education, housing stability or English proficiency, according to program criteria. In June 2011, the legislature cut $32 million out of its funding.

This year NC Pre-K asked for $25 million to be restored. Legislators declined to do so in the $20.2 billion budget they passed over Gov. Bev Perdue’s veto.

Once serving nearly 31,000 children, NC Pre-K now serves nearly 25,000 on a budget of about $128 million, according to Lori Walston, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the program.

Some Smart Start programs reorganizing

Smart Start is the state’s early education initiative meant to ensure children enter kindergarten healthy and ready to learn. Funded through state and federal programs, as well as through corporate grants, it is administered by The North Carolina Partnership for Children, Inc., which oversees the work of 76 local Smart Start partnerships. The local partners contract with local agencies to provide services such as nutrition and literacy training.

During this year’s legislative session, the group asked the General Assembly to restore half of $36 million cut from the program last year. Denied, Smart Start’s budget remains the same this year as last – $151 million.

But because legislators have increased the minimum percentage of Smart Start money that each partnership has to apply to childcare subsidies – from 30 to 39 percent – other Smart Start programs are suffering.

The changes were severe enough that the McDowell County partnership, which originally stood on its own, felt it could no longer, prompting it to merge with Rutherford and Polk counties in July to form the Partnership for Children of the Foothills.

“It’s kind of like a double-edged sword,” said Barry Gold, executive director of the Partnership for Children of the Foothills, which now serves Rutherford, Polk and McDowell counties. Increasing the money for childcare subsidies is “a good thing” because it allows more parents to work, he said.

“But you rob Peter to pay Paul,” he added, “and someone gets hurt.”

Cuts to services

“We had been facing budget cuts the last seven or eight years, so we had gotten used to cutting programs back to the bare minimum,” said Caroline Rodier, former director of the McDowell partnership and now assistant director of the merged partnership. “So when we got the 20 percent cut and the requirement for more towards (childcare) subsidies, it was a double whammy.”

It also cut its First Steps and Healthy Start home-visiting programs. It also stopped funding the popular McSmiles mobile preschool program, which sent teachers in old school buses into rural areas for children to attend short preschool classes. McDowell County Schools, the partnership’s program partner, now funds the program entirely.

For years, the Rutherford-Polk partnership had a Parents As Teachers program that was a national training model for partnership professionals. The 25-year-old program sent trained educators into homes of low-income, high-risk new parents to show them the importance of reading to their children and helping them identify shapes and colors.

But the partnership had to give up that program last year, Gold said.

It also lost a program that let it pay a portion of health insurance for childcare workers, a perk that helped stabilize the childcare workforce and bring stability to many children’s lives. The program reduced worker turnover from 50 to 20 percent annually, Gold said.

The mandated increase in childcare subsidies means Region A Partnership for Children will draw money away from a program that augments wages for childcare professionals who are advancing their careers and from programs that help families at family resource centers, Edgerton, the organization’s executive director said.

“People are out there who are so isolated, with no knowledge of how to be a parent,” she said. “You think, shouldn’t everyone already know about these things? But people that are really dirt poor, they’ve said that they just need this kind of help. And that the people at the family resource centers welcome them and respect them.”

“We all understand that this is a very challenging economic time,” Gold said. “No one expects all these dollars to flow to us. But to get such a huge cut and not get anything restored, it’s just very difficult.”

He paused and added, “We’re going to make it work, and we’re going to do some very good things.”

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Paul Clark is a contributing reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at paulgclark@charter.net.

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