North Carolina third-graders have higher standardized reading and math scores and lower special education placement rates in those counties that had received more funding for Smart Start and More at Four, now NC Pre-K, when those children were younger, Duke University researchers have found.

“These findings provide the most rigorous evidence yet that investments in these early childhood initiatives generate substantial benefits for all the children in the counties that receive these funds, even children who were never enrolled in the early childhood programs,” said Helen Ladd, the Edgar T. Thompson Distinguished Professor of Public Policy and a professor of economics at Duke.

For an average third-grade child whose community had received Smart Start or pre-k funding, the expected savings in special education and instructional costs is at least equal to the cost of those programs, researchers said. “By the time the children grow up, we expect the investment will have yielded large payoffs in lower special education and remedial costs,” concluded Kenneth Dodge, the William McDougall Professor of Public Policy and director of Duke’s Center for Child and Family Policy.