Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Arkansas Advocates assesses the state of early childhood education in 2015

Posted By on Wed, Dec 30, 2015 at 11:48 AM

click to enlarge STILL NOT TOP PRIORITY: An Arkansas preschool teacher in an Early Head Start reads to children in this 2013 file photo. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • STILL NOT TOP PRIORITY: An Arkansas preschool teacher in an Early Head Start reads to children in this 2013 file photo.

Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families
has a new brief out today on the pre-K situation in Arkansas, and how it's changed in the past year.

The report is optimistic, noting that a $60 million federal grant (to be disbursed over a four year period) has made possible an expansion of 1,371 new preschool slots statewide, along with a significant increase in per-child funding for another 1,506 children. The federal money is intended to increase the quality of pre-K programs in specific, high-need areas, including the Little Rock School District. 

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation also funded two $1 million initiatives intended to boost quality in Arkansas kindergarten and pre-K classrooms, and the state legislature added a one-time $3 million to the Arkansas Better Chance program for the next two fiscal years. ABC provides free or reduced-cost pre-K to low-income families.

The one-time money from the state budget, the report notes, "is the first increase in funding to the ABC program since FY 2008 when $40 million of ongoing revenue was added to increase quality and enrollment. While this $3 million is a first step for enriching the quality of our program, it is just that, a first step. The program needs a significant amount of ongoing revenue to ensure that it maintains the high quality that kids need in order to start their schooling off on the right foot."

The Republican legislature is more interested in tax cuts which accrue largely to the wealthy than in significantly increasing the pre-K budget. The extra $3 million the General Assembly appropriated earlier this year is welcome, of course, but it shouldn't be oversold. It falls far short of what's needed.

Arkansas's pre-K budget effectively shrank, in real terms, since 2008 — a span of time in which Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe set the state's budget priorities along with Republican legislative leaders, it should be noted. As William El-Amin wrote in a Times column in April, $3 million is only a fraction of what would have been required to keep pace with inflation over the past seven years.

The money kicked in by the state looks even more paltry when compared to the federal grant mentioned in the Advocates report. A sum of $60 million over four years works out to about $15 million per year, which is ten times higher than the amount Arkansas could cough up on an annual basis ($3 million over two years is $1.5 million per year).

So is this progress? When compared to 2014, sure. But not when compared to 2008. That would require a real investment of state revenue, something the legislature is so far averse to doing.

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