Early Childhood Education

One of the most controversial issues in the past few years has been the growing role of the state in providing preschool opportunities to North Carolina children. All too often, proponents of state-run early childhood education programs spend more time tugging heartstrings than recommending sound public policy.

Key Facts

  • Smart Start is a public/private program that serves children from birth to five years old. The N.C. Partnership for Children and 77 Local Partnerships oversee the program, which has existed since 1993. Smart Start provides childcare subsidies, teacher training, health screenings, and support for families regardless of income. Total Local Partnership expenditures neared $177 million during the 2010-11 school year.
  • The Division of Child Development and Early Education of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) oversees two large state programs — NC Pre-K (formerly More at Four) and the Subsidized Child Care Program — and three federal pre-kindergarten programs — Preschool for Exceptional Children, Title I Preschool, and Head Start.
  • During the 2011-2012 school year, N.C. Pre-K received $128 million in state and lottery funds. The program served approximately 25,000 children in 1,190 public, private, and Head Start sites.
  • The maximum gross annual income for initial eligibility for N.C. Pre-K is 75 percent of the state median income or around $50,000 for a family of four. N.C. Pre-K may enroll up to 20 percent of children defined as "at-risk," regardless of income. "At-risk" children include those who have a disability, a chronic health condition, a developmental need, Limited English Proficiency, or one or more parents in the military.
  • Preschool for Exceptional Children is a program supported by state and federal funds that provides pre-kindergarten services for special needs children. Most participating students have a developmental delay, speech impairment, or Autism Spectrum Disorder, but participation is not limited to children with these conditions. During the 2011-2012 school year, the $62 million program served over 15,500 children.
  • School districts and schools that choose to participate in Title I Preschool set aside a portion of their federal Title I funding to provide pre-kindergarten programs for at-risk four-year-olds. In 2010-11, N.C. districts allocated $58.8 million to serve nearly 9,400 children.
  • The federal Head Start program is the largest federal pre-kindergarten initiative in North Carolina. The U.S. DHHS awarded N.C. Head Start nearly $170 million in 2011-2012. Of the 20,901 children served during that school year, 63 percent were four years old. The program provides education, nutrition, counseling, and health services for children from birth to five years old.
  • A 2010 study of Head Start conducted by the U.S. DHHS concluded that cognitive and social benefits of the program largely disappear by the end of first grade.
  • The Carolina Abecedarian Project study tracked the academic performance and occupational status of two groups of low-income students from infancy to age 30. The latest evaluation of the program found that those who received pre-kindergarten services were more likely to have a college education and steady employment and less likely to receive public assistance than those who did not receive the intervention. However, it showed no significant difference between the two groups on measures of income and criminal activity. Previous studies of cognitive outcomes revealed that the gap between the two groups began to narrow or "fade out" as students entered high school.


  1. Smart Start and other subsidy programs for preschool expenses should be eliminated in favor of a refundable tax credit. For a smaller subset of desperately poor preschoolers who lack functioning parents, a carefully designed state intervention may be justified.
  2. NC Pre-K eligibility requirements should be narrowed to focus resources primarily on low-income children. This would ensure that N.C. Pre-K prioritizes the educational needs of North Carolina's poorest.
  3. A qualified, independent research firm should conduct longitudinal evaluations of children who participated in Smart Start and N.C. Pre-K. Taxpayers and policymakers should have access to longitudinal research studies that evaluate multiple outcome measures for children who have been served by state pre-kindergarten programs.

Analyst: Dr. Terry Stoops
Director of Education Studies
919-828-3876 • [email protected]

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