Originally created 02/22/99

Smart Start results vary, say critics



COLUMBIA -- Five years after North Carolina launched Smart Start, the state cannot conclusively say it has increased children's readiness for kindergarten.

Gov. Jim Hodges wants to spend $20 million on a South Carolina version called First Steps, which would begin as a pilot program in about a dozen counties and expand gradually.

"The jury's out on the long-term results," said Donna Bryant, a researcher at the University of North Carolina's Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center, the agency charged with assessing Smart Start. "The short-term results, I think, are positive and make us think that the program is worthwhile."

The state spent $139 million on Smart Start last year, and Gov. Jim Hunt has asked for an $81 million increase. Businesses have donated more than $30 million since 1994.

The center examined about 200 child-care centers in the 18 counties where Smart Start began in 1994 and found that more child care was being provided, the quality was better and more children were being screened for health problems.

Also, teachers in early childhood programs were better educated, and children from low-income families and children with disabilities were more likely to be enrolled in child-care programs.

But the study did not find evidence that children were performing at a higher level once they reached kindergarten -- Smart Start's primary mission.

Ms. Bryant said it is too early to dismiss Smart Start's influence because the program has expanded gradually, reaching the last 45 counties last year.

There have been individual success cases. Last June, a study found that Smart Start children in Orange County were more prepared for kindergarten than those not in the program.

Smart Start was named one of 10 national winners of the annual Innovations in American Government Awards by Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and the Ford Foundation.

Much of the skepticism that greeted Smart Start has subsided, said June Smith, a Smart Start director.

"I feel that a lot of people who mouthed negativism ... in the beginning did it for political reasons rather than because they understood it and didn't believe in it," Ms. Smith said.

But critics remain. North Carolina Republican Rep. Russell Capps said he thinks Smart Start is overrated.

"I have no problem with helping the children. But, in my opinion, the major part of it is not really going to those children," he said.

"It's top-heavy with bureaucracy and fanfare," he said.

There also have been instances of Smart Start money being misspent, such as two former employees of a Winston-Salem child-care facility who embezzled nearly $185,000.