by John Hood
Chairman John Locke Foundation
August 11, 1998
Smart Start may well be the most successful public policy initiative ever hatched in North Carolina — if one defines success as getting good press. Not just in North Carolina but nationally, the program has received lavish praise for making an investment in the future of the state. Of course, a program designed to have long-term consequences couldn’t be evaluated during its first few years of operation, so all proponents and critics had to go on was what Smart Start was intended to do.
Now, with four years of operation under its belt, Smart Start is ready to be evaluated on the basis of results. Unfortunately for its boosters, the early evidence does not bear out Smart Start’s reputation. Two studies, neither conducted by critics of the program, have found it not to be the public-private partnership that Hunt promised in 1993, nor is it a successful “investment” in early childhood development.
On August 6, State Auditor Ralph Campbell released a Special Report on the Smart Start Program.It included financial data for FY 1995-96 and 1996-97. While Campbell’s office found some areas of improvement, particularly in the number of management problems at local partnerships, it concluded that Smart Start still operates without a uniform fund accounting system, without a uniform contract management and monitoring system, and without sufficient oversight by the N.C. Partnership for Children.1
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the audit found that Smart Start continues to fail to meet its private fundraising goals. For 1996-97, the program received $3.9 million in cash and in-kind contributions, far less than the $6.7 million in private funds required by the General Assembly in exchange for past increases in taxpayer support.2 Even this standard wasn’t particularly high; the legislature mandated only that Smart Start raise $1 in private funds for every $10 in taxpayer funds. Given the early rhetoric about Smart Start not being a government entitlement program and instead being a public-private partnership, the failure to meet the legislature’s low fundraising target represents a major disappointment. Indeed, the N.C. Partnership for Children says it has exceeded the fundraising goal for 1997-98 — but only after liberalizing the definition of fundraising to include gifts made directly to day care centers, not to Smart Start itself. How much private support would flow to the centers anyway? It is impossible to tell.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Study
On June 2, the N.C. Partnership for Children released a study of the educational impact of Smart Start on kindergartners in Mecklenburg County. The study was conducted by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Schools and Smart Start of Mecklenburg County. It employed a survey of 5,715 parents of Mecklenburg kindergartners, providing demographic and Smart Start participation information. It also used different assessments to provide educational data for kindergartners. One, the Kindergarten Awareness Profile (KAP), is given to incoming students to identify potential learning difficulties. The other, the Kindergarten Assessment in Reading and Mathematics (KARM), is a periodic observation of academic achievement given by classroom teachers. The results are combined at the end of the year and serve as a measurement of student achievement.
In brief, no statistically significant relationship was found between the KAP and KARM results and participation in the Smart Start program for less than three years. That is, preschoolers who spent a single year in a Smart Start-supported day care center or simply received a Smart Start-sponsored vision or hearing screening did not perform any better on the KAP screening or the KARM achievement assessment than preschoolers who did not. For those who spent three years in a Smart Start-supported center, the study did find a statistically significant — but small — difference. On the KAP screening, long-term Smart Start kids scored an average of 93.35 (on a scale of 0-102) vs. 91.05 for kids without that experience. On the KARM, the point difference was similar: 32.18 (on a scale of 0-34) vs. 29.83.3
Smart Start proponents trumpeted that last result as evidence of the effectiveness of the program. “Smart Start is working in Mecklenburg County and this study proves it,” said Ashley Thrift, chairman of the N.C. Partnership for Children.4 He is mistaken. Past experience with Head Start, a federally funded preschool program created in the 1960s, shows that the difference between participating and nonparticipating preschoolers will shrink as both groups go through the same schools.5 A large gain in early educational outcomes for participants might be sustained over time, but a tiny one — 2 points on a test — is unlikely to persist. It is certainly not a worthwhile return on the huge investment that North Carolina taxpayers have made in the Smart Start program since 1993.
Even the small jump in scores for long-term Smart Start participants may be suspect. After all, it is difficult if not impossible to rule out “selection bias” in such a study. That is, parents with other characteristics likely to improve student performance are probably more likely to get their children involved in Smart Start-type programs than are their peers. This effect may be small, but it wouldn’t take much to eradicate the small differences the study found.
As previous Locke Foundation Spotlights have pointed out, most preschoolers will never benefit from Smart Start because they do not spend any time in day care centers. They are cared for at home by parents, relatives, or other providers, or in someone else’s home. Even many who do attend day care centers do so for less than three years, suggesting (in the wake of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg study) that they also will not benefit from Smart Start.
Gov. Hunt and the other proponents of Smart Start weren’t wrong to focus on early childhood development as a means of improving educational performance for North Carolina children. But their choice of means was flawed. Instead of creating just another government spending program, policymakers should consider alternatives more likely to assist a broader range of families, such as a Smart Start tax credit for all North Carolinians with preschool children. This would allow for greater choice and competition while avoiding the creation of a new, bureaucratic government entitlement.
John Hood, President