This story is part of the NPR reporting project "School Money," a nationwide collaboration between NPR's Ed Team and 20 member station reporters exploring how states pay for their public schools and why many are failing to meet the needs of their most vulnerable students.
Inside Crystal Cook’s pre-kindergarten classroom in Concord, North Carolina, you'll find the obvious pre-K sights: energetic kids stacking blocks, rolling out play dough and banging on instruments.
"It seems chaotic," admits Cook. "But they're definitely learning how to play together and do basic things they’re expected to do next year."
Indeed. Look more closely, and you'll find a few, less obvious things that set Cook's class apart from your run-of-the-mill pre-K program.
The class lasts a full day. Its size is capped at 18 students. In addition to Cook, who holds a birth-through-kindergarten teaching license, there's also a teacher assistant.
"It’s been amazing for her," says Crystal Geldner, whose daughter Kaedyn is in Cook's class.
Kaedyn qualifies for the program because of her family's income and her father's active-duty status in the National Guard.
Last year, Geldner remembers helping her daughter with coloring and recognizing letters. Now, Kaedyn enjoys whizzing through the alphabet, writing letters and numbers and generally dazzling her mom with stories of things she’s learned in Cook's class.
"She'll say, 'Oh look, Mommy, there's an evergreen.' And I'll say, 'How do you even know what an evergreen is?' We'll go on nature walks and she'll show me the buds of the trees getting ready to bloom," laughs Geldner. "It's just all these things that I never would've thought to explain or show her that she's coming home and telling me about."
Geldner says she knows her daughter will be well-prepared for kindergarten next year. And that was the point when North Carolina became one of the first states to offer free, high-quality preschool to all of its most vulnerable students.
It began with a lawsuit. In 1994, a handful of rural school districts sued the state, arguing that they didn't have enough money to give their students a quality education.
Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning found that, for most students, the state's schools and their funding were good enough. It was a different story, though, for what Manning called "at-risk" students – children with disabilities, learning English as a second language, or living in poverty.
Manning insisted the state couldn't just write a check to make things right. It needed a plan. And he declared, in no uncertain terms, that high-quality pre-kindergarten should be part of that plan. In Manning's October 2000 decision he wrote:
"The Court is not so naïve as to think that every single at-risk child will be an academic superstar as a result of this early childhood intervention, but the Court is convinced that without this intervention more children will be doomed to the academic basement."
The state fought the ruling. But, with the strong support of North Carolina's new governor, Mike Easley, the program grew quickly. At peak enrollment, in the 2008-09 school year, it provided free preschool to roughly 35,000 kids at a cost of $170 million.
Does It Work?
Crystal Geldner will tell you, the program works. Turns out, the research agrees.
Ellen Peisner-Feinberg with the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has studied the state’s pre-K program since it began in 2001. She's found that children who attend make greater than expected gains in kindergarten.
"This is particularly true with dual-language learners and children who have lower levels of English proficiency," says Peisner-Feinberg.
North Carolina is able to achieve those results at a relatively low cost, too. The state partly uses lottery money to pay for the program, spending roughly $5,300 per student, with districts pitching in some extra.
Still, it's not all good news.
Peisner-Feinberg found that some of those preschool gains fade by the time these students leave third grade. And, for state lawmakers, that was one reason to scale back. When the Great Recession hit, they trimmed the program to serve 6,000 fewer children.
Those cuts could have been even deeper had Judge Manning not intervened. He blamed the fading benefits not on the preschool program but on the lackluster schooling that many students received in later years.
"They've been screwed over by first grade, second grade, third grade," said Manning in a presentation at North Carolina State University in 2011. "The academic prop they got [from preschool] fizzled because they probably weren't challenged and just treated like poor kids without expectations."
Manning's insistence on pre-kindergarten frustrated many lawmakers, including the current co-chair of the House Education Appropriations Committee, Craig Horn.
"I didn't like the fact that he cost us a lot of money when I was trying to figure out how we were going to pay our bills," says Horn. But his opinion has shifted. "Do I think he was on to something? Absolutely, I do," says Horn.
That "something" is the idea that spending on preschool, when it's a high-quality program, is a powerful investment in the future – in children who are most likely to struggle later on.