Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

North Carolina children residing in counties that received relatively more funding for the state’s well-regarded early education programs when they were younger performed better in third grade than children in less well-funded counties, according to a new study from Duke University. Researchers linked third graders scores on standardized tests in reading and math, as well as lower rates of special education placement, with funding of the state’s Smart Start and More at Four programs. Rather than look only at children who participated in the programs, the researchers correlated funding levels with the overall performance of all children. In addition, although researchers found the greatest benefit for children whose mothers have low educational attainment, children whose mothers are well educated also benefited.

Smart Start is a state-funded program that provides high-quality early education and care and other services for children from birth to age 5. It was piloted in 1993 and expanded statewide in 1999. More at Four offers high-quality pre-kindergarten for at-risk 4-year-olds. It started as a pilot program in 2001 and had expanded statewide by 2004.

“These findings provide the most rigorous evidence yet that investments in these early childhood initiatives generate substantial benefits for all the children in the counties that receive the funds,” co-author Helen Ladd, a professor of economics at Duke, said in a news release. (See a  PowerPoint presentation on the study.)

The benefits equal several months of schooling for all children in the better-funded counties. Ladd and her colleagues suggest that children in these counties may enjoy “spillover” effects. “Another source of potential benefit for all students is the boost that these initiatives may have on children’s school readiness, allowing classroom teachers to devote less time to remediation and to handling disruptive behaviors, and more time to enrichment and educational activities for all children,” co-author Clara Muschkin, an assistant professor of public policy, said in the news release.

The researchers find that the cost savings from these initial benefits is at least equal to the cost of the programs. “By the time the children grow up, we expect the investment will have yielded large payoffs in lower special education and remedial costs,” said co-author Kenneth Dodge, a professor of public policy and director of Duke’s Center for Child and Family Policy.

Currently, advocates in North Carolina are mobilizing against proposed cuts to Smart Start and More at Four.