The Joint Education committee of the legislature this afternoon reviewed an interim study by Rep. David Kizzia (D-Malvern) regarding Arkansas’s early childhood education programs, which include Head Start and the state-funded Arkansas Better Chance (ABC) program for 3- and 4-year-olds.
Only 56 percent of eligible children in this age group are served by a pre-K program, the study says, largely because funding for ABC has remained flat since 2008. When accounting for inflation, that’s essentially amounted to a year-by-year decline in state support.
It’d take $14 million to bring ABC funding back up to 2008 levels, and that’s not even touching the cost of expanding the program to include more children.
Kizzia framed the need for pre-K in startlingly sharp language. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds “have their noses pressed up against the glass of the American Dream, and they can’t get there,” he said. “It’s by accident of birth. They’ve committed no crime.” He recalled Tantalus, a character in Greek myth who made a gruesome sacrifice of his own child to the gods and was condemned to eternal punishment as a result.
As added ammunition, Kizzia and Jerri Derlikowski of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families brought in the voices of a couple of GOP legislators who hail from conservative states that have nonetheless pumped money into improving pre-K. Slade Blackwell, a Republican state senator from Alabama, and Lee Denney, the Republican Speaker Pro Temp-elect from Oklahoma, both told the committee of major gains made in their respective states thanks to renewed commitment to early childhood ed.
“Our program last year was rated number one in the nation in quality,” said Blackwell. “In 2013, every third grader who attended pre-K scored proficient in reading.” The Republican legislature in Alabama has added money each year for several years running, he said. “We’ll probably add another $10-15 million this year.”
For years, Oklahoma has been recognized for the quality of its pre-K. Denney said the state began piloting a program in the 1980s and began making it available to all parents in 1998 (although universal, it’s not compulsory).
“We have given another $10 million every year in the state of Oklahoma,” she said. Oklahoma has recently dedicated another $33.6 million to the project, some of which pays for home visits to new parents and a social worker program that works with mothers. “We want to decrease our incarceration rates down the road,” said Denney.
It’s a hopeful sign to hear Republican legislators from two very red states talk enthusiastically about early childhood education. On the campaign trail, Arkansas governor elect Asa Hutchinson has said he wants to fund ABC as it currently exists, although he indicated little interest in expanding the program’s eligibility to include more children. I asked him at a press conference last week whether pre-K was still a priority in light of less-than-stellar revenue reports, a litany of other education and prisons needs, and his own desire to cut taxes. It’s still a priority, he said, but wouldn’t say exactly how much more money he’s prepared to commit to ABC.
Kizzia, who has been one of the legislature’s most outspoken and consistent advocates for pre-K, was among the many Democratic casualties of the midterm election. He’ll be replaced in January by Republican Laurie Rushing. Still, with Democrats choosing the House education committee as a place to make a stand, and some Republicans supportive of prioritizing early childhood education, expect someone to keep raising this issue in 2015.