Researchers at Duke University have found that two North Carolina preschool programs “significantly reduce the likelihood of special education placement in the third grade,” creating substantial cost-savings for the state, according to an article in the journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.
It’s an exciting outcome for children and for taxpayers.
“Together, North Carolina’s Smart Start and More at Four early childhood programs reduced the odds of third-grade special education placement by 39 percent. Nationwide, special education costs nearly twice as much as regular classroom education,” a Duke University press release explains.
The release adds: “Smart Start, which dates back to the early 1990s, provides child care, health screenings and other services to children ages zero to five across the state. More at Four, created in 2001, provided preschool slots for disadvantaged four-year-olds. The program was rechristened NC Pre-K in 2011 and is now managed by a different state agency.
“At 2009 funding levels, Smart Start reduced special education placements by 10 percent while More at Four reduced placements by 32 percent.”
“While More at Four costs roughly $1,100 per child, the authors noted, educating a special-needs student costs twice as much as an average student; in North Carolina, that would be around $16,000 per year. And those costs can roll over year after year,” according to an NPR blog.
The journal article elaborates on the cost rollovers, saying, “Because many students receive special education services for multiple years, the benefits of either early childhood intervention are likely to be much higher than this single year savings.”
Researchers also found that these two programs have helped children across the demographic spectrum. The release explains:
“The early childhood programs appeared to benefit children across the community, even those who did not participate directly in the programs, in part by helping to raise early education standards across the community.”
“Some diagnoses were particularly responsive. In particular, placements for learning disabilities fell dramatically with higher levels of early childhood funding. Learning disabilities are the single largest special education category in North Carolina, accounting for almost 40 percent of all placements. More at Four was also associated with reduced placements for mild mental handicaps as well as attention disorders.”
“This gives policy makers useful evidence that investments in early childhood education are a source of significant cost savings for the state,” Clara G. Muschkin, the article’s lead author said in the Washington Post.
Muschkin noted “that the study confirmed the researchers’ hypothesis that there are conditions in young children that could be improved by high-quality early childhood education – including some learning issues and attention disorders. Such programs did not have an effect on physical or other serious disabilities,” according to the News & Observer.
Muschkin also told NPR that “the findings challenge other research showing that any benefits from preschool wash out early. Seeing benefits in third grade, she noted, qualifies as a ‘long-lasting’ impact.”
Policymakers have taken note of the report’s findings.
“Sen. Jerry Tillman, an Archdale Republican and co-chairman of the education committee, said he wanted to look further at the study’s results,” the News & Observer says. “Many studies show quality prekindergarten’s positive impact on student performance in early grades, Tillman said, but some studies cast doubt on whether the gains are long lasting.”
Tillman himself adds: “I’m going to take a look at this one, because I’ve never seen it associated with special education one way or the other.”
As an editorial in the News & Observer says about these new findings, “Legislators must provide full funding for the pre-K program, without hesitation. It is the right thing to do, simply on its face… And as the Duke research shows, it is the smart thing to do in terms of the state’s investment in education.”