“Pay me now or pay me later, but pay me you will,” said the guy selling Fram oil filters in the 1970s TV commercials. I remembered those ads as I listened to the presenters at this year’s Emerging Issues Forum. The subject was early childhood development and the case was dramatically made that we — all of us — have a role helping our children get the best start possible.
The case is convicting. By age three, 80 percent of a child’s brain structure is created and early childhood experiences lay the foundation for not only success in the classroom, but also for happier and healthier youngsters who grow into more desirable workers, land better paying jobs and pay more taxes to help future generations.
The way to this desired development includes a safe and nurturing environment that provides good nutrition, adequate health care and good interpersonal relationships. While many enjoy this early childhood, too many don’t, and we discover those gaps when they enter our schools. Only 50 percent of our children read at grade level at the end of the first grade and 38 percent of fourth-graders read proficiently. Only 18 percent of our 2016 grads passed all four ACT college and career readiness benchmarks and only 41 percent scored 17 or higher on the ACT, the minimum level for entry to UNC System institutions. Let us be clear: while our teachers and schools play a critical role in these outcomes — and can do better — too much blame is ascribed them for failures often the result of early developmental and socioeconomic problems prior to getting to school.
North Carolina is an acknowledged leader in both understanding and intervening in early childhood development, but we clearly aren’t doing enough. More is needed. The federal government already provides some $1 billion per year in benefits, with our state adding another $365 million identified for such things as child care subsidies, Smart Start, pre-k for special needs children.
We could resolve some of the other problems our state faces if we dramatically improved early childhood development, making it a high priority by providing more childcare assistance, full funding for all children in pre-k, a renewed emphasis on education in the first four grades and whatever educational, nutritional and healthcare funding is required to accomplish the task. But as the Emerging Issues task force concluded, this increased funding must also be accompanied by more accountability.
While it would be idealistic to believe the private sector would provide the needed funding, the reality is that’s not going to happen. We also aren’t likely to dramatically increase federal funding and our local communities, while they must do more, can’t solve the problem either, since the state determines what funding they can generate. Our state leaders need to recognize that the responsibility and ultimate success or failure depends on their commitment.
Back to my oil filter comparison. When our children fail to get that essential early start, we all pay the price. Remediation, behavioral problems, dropouts, crime, incarceration and increased demands on public benefits are that price we pay. My big takeaway from this year’s Emerging Issues Forum is that to get better early childhood outcomes we are going to have to pay … either now or later.
Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion of NC issues airing on UNC-TV. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.