By Jane Stancill, excerpt from the News & Observer, Feb. 3, 2015.
Children enrolled in North Carolina’s state-supported early education programs have a reduced chance of being placed in special education by third grade, Duke University researchers say.
The findings suggest that state investment in quality early childhood programs can prevent costly special education later. The researchers, Clara Muschkin, Helen Ladd and Kenneth Dodge, analyzed data about North Carolina special education placement and children’s access to two early childhood programs – NC Pre-K, which provides preschool for at-risk 4-year-olds, and Smart Start, which provides child health and family services to children from birth to age 5. The study covered the period from 1995 to 2010.
Access to the state’s prekindergarten program for 4-year-olds reduced the likelihood of third-grade special education placements by 32 percent, and access to Smart Start reduced the odds by 10 percent. Researchers saw a 39 percent reduction in special education placements following both early childhood programs.
Muschkin said the results are “yet another incentive” for policymakers to extend early education to children to avoid spending more on special education down the road. “It costs about twice as much to educate a child in third grade who receives special education services,” Muschkin said.
The state’s NC Pre-K program has been the subject of political wrangling in recent years. The state has established prekindergarten for poor children as a way to ensure that all children in the state have access to a sound, basic education. But not all poor children in the state have access to the state Pre-K program. By one estimate, about 67,000 4-year-olds would qualify. The number of available slots has varied with the state’s funding year to year.
In the Duke study, researchers found that the prekindergarten program cut down on the number of children with preventable disabilities, including attention disorders and mild mental disabilities. Smart Start, researchers said, helped reduce children classified as having a learning disability, which accounts for almost 40 percent of placements in special education.
The study implied that even children who were not funded for an NC Pre-K slot benefited from being in the same classroom as others who received education according to the program’s high standards.
“It certainly would be a really cost-effective investment to increase access to the early childhood program,” Muschkin said. “We certainly aren’t reaching all the children who may come to school with disadvantages and all the children whose special needs might be taken care of early on and save the school system from having to provide services.”
Click here to view our 2013-14 evalution report infographics for more information on the impact of early childhood programs in Durham.