Hunt defends pre-kindergarten programs against cuts

Posted March 1, 2011 7:11 p.m. EST
Updated March 2, 2011 9:43 a.m. EST

— Former Gov. Jim Hunt championed the creation of the Smart Start early childhood education program more than a decade ago. Now, he's coming to the program's defense as lawmakers consider ending it.

"The very idea of even talking about closing that or cutting that drastically is just ridiculous," Hunt said Tuesday.

Republican legislative leaders last week set a $10.5 billion target for education spending in the 2011-12 fiscal year, which starts in July. Among the ideas they suggested for cuts was consolidating the Smart Start and More at Four pre-kindergarten programs or eliminating them altogether.

Smart Start provides health screenings and developmental testing for low-income and special needs youngsters, as well as education programs for them and their parents. The program received about $182 million in state funding this year.

More at Four, which was created several years ago to provide an educational boost for 4-year-olds at risk of falling behind in kindergarten and elementary school, received about $160 million in funding this year.

Gov. Beverly Perdue has proposed cutting each program's budget by 5 percent next year to help balance the state budget.

"I can't even imagine what some of our children and families would do if we no longer had these programs," said Nedra Wicker, executive director of A Safe Place Child Development Center in Garner.

Wicker's program provides 4- and 5-year-olds with reading, writing and math skills, as well as time for art and creativity.

"It's giving them a great foundation, a great start," she said.

Hunt cited studies that show children in early education programs develop better math and English skills and that students who fall behind in the early elementary school grades are less likely to be successful when they get to high school – if they get there at all.

"If you care about children doing well in the schools, going on and being good workers and having jobs and a strong economy, you have to support Smart Start, More at Four and early childhood programs," he said.

Sen. Jerry Tillman, co-chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, said sacrifices need to be made to erase a projected $2.4 billion deficit.

"Good programs are going to suffer," said Tillman, R-Randolph, a retired school administrator. "We've got to deal with what we've got."