Eastern N.C. still needs Smart Start, Hunt says

April 20, 2016

Ginger Livingston | Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Investing in early childhood education pays off with a better-educated work force, said the governor who set the modern standards for investing in education.

Former four-term North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt discussed the history of Smart Start and the role it now plays in the state during the Greenville-Pitt County Chamber of Commerce’s Power ’16 Series. Hunt received several standing ovations from the nearly 130 people attending Tuesday’s event at the Hilton Greenville.

“His vision was really not just about young children but economic prosperity,” said Cindy Watkins, president of Smart Start and The North Carolina Partnership for Children.

Hunt delved into his history and the history of eastern North Carolina and its institutions, talking about the struggles to secure a four-lane highway between Greenville and Raleigh and interstate access from the coast and the challenges East Carolina University’s late chancellor, Leo Jenkins, faced when establishing the medical school.

GOV+HUN“I say those things for you young folks so you can learn you can do big things in life if you understand what the people need, what it takes for economic growth and jobs and a good life and good families and a good life,” Hunt, who turns 79 next month, said. “I want all of you to be encouraged, to be optimistic about what you can do, what we can do.”

In numerous meetings with business owners, questions about quality child care and education always were in the forefront, Hunt said. Business owners said they could not get their managers to move unless good schools and good child care were available.

Hunt said that while the state has a “storied history” of supporting public schools, universities and the community college system, educators said too many children were entering kindergarten without the basic skills needed for learning, such as being able to recognize and read their names, recognize the alphabet and count from one to 10, hold a book properly or use scissors.

“Babies are born with millions of brain cells, but the capacity for intelligence comes about when those brain cells connect with each other,” Hunt said. “How does that come about? … Those brain cells connect when stimulated.”

Hunt launched Smart Start, a public-private partnership, in 1993 to help families with children up to 5 years old secure resources to support those early years of learning.

Local partnerships were formed, such as the Martin-Pitt Partnership for Children, to develop programs that suit the specific needs of those communities.

In the last 23 years, the partnership has helped child care centers improve the services they offer and their workers obtain better training. Parents can receive referrals for child care providers and access programs that guide them in teaching their children. The partnership operates a program to connect first-time mothers with nurses for support.

“I love the state, like you do. I spent my life working for it,” Hunt said. “We’ve had a lot of success, and it’s because of education and people working for it.”

In fiscal year 2000-01, when Hunt concluded his fourth term, the state’s Smart Start appropriation was $231 million. In fiscal year 2014-15, Smart Start’s budget was $147 million.

“There was a time during the recession when things had to be cut back, held out, but now the economy is coming back, so now is the time to invest more in education,” Hunt said. “Raise teacher pay, raise it strongly. Just don’t put money in the rainy day fund like (the General Assembly) did the last time.

“Let’s have the best teachers, let’s have the best early childhood (education),” Hunt said. “We have discovered the earliest years in a child’s life are the most important years.”

Supporters of early childhood education should let local legislators know that area needs their support, Hunt said.

“Just talk to them and hope they do the right thing, and then if they don’t, we’ll have elections,” Hunt said.

Contact Ginger Livingston at glivingston@reflector.com or 252-329-9570. Follow her on Twitter @GingerLGDR.

Read the original article at The Daily Reflector.

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