Two-thirds of mothers with children under six are in the work force in North Carolina and their children spend their days in child care. Prior to 1993, the child care services were woefully inadequate: quality was among the poorest in the country and children were not getting the developmental opportunities they needed to assure a bright and healthy future.
The brainchild of Governor Jim Hunt, Smart Start aimed to fundamentally reshape the existing poorly financed, fragmented, and gap-laden, child care services in all of North Carolina's one hundred counties. Smart Start is designed around three critical goals: improving the quality, availability and affordability of child care; expanding access to preventative health services for children; and enhancing support services for families with young children.
Convinced of the need for a middle ground solution somewhere between big government and no government, the Governor set out to create a partnership among government, the religious community, businesses, health care providers, social service staff, and educational professionals. The Governor believed that this diverse set of stakeholders would bring critical public and private resources to the table, all focused on encouraging local innovation and collaboration. Since 1993, Smart Start has been expanding and improving, serving thousands of children around North Carolina.
Smart Start's theory of change is that enhanced childcare, parent education, and health education and screenings will result in more children being ready for school and other positive child outcomes. The intermediary outcome is a better system of early child care and education; the long-term results are reflected in indices of readiness. Harvard Family Development expert Heather Weiss writes that Smart Start is the most ambitious large-scale effort to build a comprehensive system of early childhood services in the country. She also asserts that the program is evidence that North Carolina is far ahead of most states in the extent of its devolution of human service money, responsibility, and accountability to the local level.
Although Smart Start focuses primarily on child care services and improvements in early education, it also includes funds for playground enhancements, libraries, medical screenings, and nutrition programs for child care providers. In each Smart Start county, the quality of life for each child is considered in a holistic way that includes health, supervision, education, and recreation.
While Smart Start has achieved numerous milestones since its inception, the single most important achievement has been its success in rallying individuals, communities, local and state government agencies, the business community, and others around the issues related to the health and well-being of North Carolina's young children. Every country in North Carolina has now developed its own community partnership to implement a strategic plan for the heath and care of its children. Quality of care has been shown to increase the longer a country has participated in Smart Start. Teachers in counties with Smart Start have benefited from professional development opportunities, classrooms are better equipped, and the program is expanding rapidly so as to serve more families and children.