When SmartStart, an early childhood education program, was launched in 1993, it was hailed nationally as a model for reaching children during those critical early development years before kindergarten. This, said educators, was the way to give kids a good foundation for lifelong learning.
The idea was to bring in parents, funnel funds into local programs and foster interagency cooperation to help develop children from birth to kindergarten.
And for 18 years, it’s worked, said Janice Edgerton, executive director of the Region A Partnership for Children, which administers the money for SmartStart in Western North Carolina. The idea has been co-opted by other states; North Carolina, it seemed, had done something right.
“It is so obvious now that these (early) years are so important, and on top of that you can track back the research about the success of programs that have worked with children in the early years. You can look back at North Carolina and see the difference now,” said Edgerton. “It’s crucial, and we have tons of evidence to support it.”
But now, as they’ve done in so many other places, the vagaries of the economy and politics are creeping in on SmartStart.
Starting next year, it will lose at least 20 percent of its funding, and possibly up to a quarter.
In Haywood County, cuts will be felt in a program called Parents As Teachers. It does pretty much what it sounds like — engages parents to take an active role in teaching their own babies, toddlers and preschoolers, teaches them what to look for and how to foster their development in the vital early years.
For Nora Doggett, it’s been an invaluable service.
She and her husband moved here from California last year, and that’s when she became a stay-at-home mom for the first time.
“It was a different experience and I didn’t know how to handle it,” said Doggett. But thanks to the Parents As Teachers workers, she now knows how to shepherd her two sons, ages 1 and 3, through the different developmental stages, and she’s got support the whole way.
“Right now, my son is three, and I know what he’s supposed to be doing, and I know what else to look for in him,” said Doggett. “Because they are with you along the way, they know how your children develop.”
Despite its success, the program is falling prey to the gaping budget hole that’s been looming over every state-funded agency for months now.
In SmartStart’s corner, opposing the cuts, are, of course, education advocates who point to numerous studies that list early-age development as key to success later in life. Joining them are the state’s Democrats, who may be in it for the children, but have also entered the fray to take shots at their counterparts on the other side of the aisle, who they say are killing off vital programs with a slash-and-burn approach to the budget and using services like SmartStart as political weapons.
On the other side of the ring are said Republicans, who counter that they’re not cutting arbitrarily, but necessarily. When there’s a funding hole as big as the state faced, something’s got to go, even if it means good programs are cut.
“There’s not enough waste, fraud and abuse in the government to fix $2 billion worth of deficit,” said Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin. “We just can’t continue going to the well and asking people for more money, no matter how good the program is.”
He and fellow Republicans went after SmartStart and its companion childcare program, More At 4, citing service duplication and administratively heavy structures. They cut $1 million from the administrative side, said Davis, but they needed more. They had to slice into programming somewhere. And SmartStart was that place.
Parents as Teachers in Haywood County already has 27 families on a waiting list. With the cuts, one of its three facilitators will be laid off, pushing even more families to the waiting list.
Parents as Teachers facilitators make home visits to evaluate children and show parents how to make learning toys from things they already have, like dry pasta and toilet paper tubes.
They also hold group sessions to connect families to one another and teach parenting skills that prepare babies for kindergarten.
And then there’s the connections to other families, other services in the community, which Parents As Teachers workers say are some of the most helpful things they do, especially in the Hispanic community.
Tania Rossi heads up the Latino Parents As Teachers initiative, and she said that’s been one of her greatest successes, connecting families to one another and encouraging them to get their children into early education.
“After six years in the Latino program, I can see a lot of difference,” said Rossi. “You see the impact with other families.”
Among the kids in her Latino program, the reading rates have shot up over the last six years, due partly to her efforts at educating parents.
SmartStart initiatives, however, include far more than Parents as Teachers.
They subsidize childcare for families in the region who can’t afford it, along with developmental services like reading assistance and speech therapy. SmartStart also works behind the scenes with programs like WAGE$, which offers small bonuses to traditionally low-paid preschool teachers, giving them incentives to stick with it.
Across the state, SmartStart funds dozens of initiatives with local partners to support toddlers and their families. Edgerton said she’s concerned that SmartStart won’t be able to continue offering the quality of services it does now.
“You’ve got to remember that we’ve had drastic budget cuts the last 10 years,” said Edgerton. “I’ve been here for 13 years at the Partnership for Children and we’ve had budget cuts for 10 years. So this is really taking a very lean budget and cutting it to blazes.”
Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, said he understands the direness of the state’s financial situation. And, he said, consolidating everything into a single birth-to-kindergarten model is an admirable pursuit. But deep cuts to the programs themselves, he said, would hurt the state’s children.
“It’s just not necessary,” said Rapp. “But you know, that’s where I think you get people that are in a straightjacket to their own political rhetoric. The bottom line on all of this is that we’ve got children who are at risk that need childcare and preschool education. I just find those kind of cuts unconscionable.”