Speaking before a classroom of 4-year-olds at Fair Park Early Childhood Center, Democratic candidate for governor Mike Ross, introduced his plan for early childhood education, which would aim to provide universal access to high-quality pre-k for all 4-year-olds in the state by 2025.
“If we want every child in Arkansas to have the opportunity to achieve his or her dreams, then we need to fully support quality pre-kindergarten education and make it accessible to every 4-year-old in Arkansas,” Ross said. He told the story of a Fayetteville mother who was forced to tell her 4-year-old son that he couldn’t go to the “big-boy school” because there were no public pre-k slots available. “The bottom line is this,” Ross said. “No child should ever be on a waiting list for pre-k in Arkansas.”
Ross made the case for the long-term value and return on investment the public can gain by funding pre-k (see more on this topic in my cover story on HeadStart and early childhood education in Arkansas from last summer):
The advantages of pre-kindergarten are clear: children who attend high-quality pre-k are less likely to be held back a grade, less likely to need special education or remediation, and more likely to graduate high school.
They also have higher earnings as adults and are less likely to become dependent on welfare or involved with the criminal justice system – meaning investments in pre-k now will help save taxpayers money later. …
Study after study shows that for every dollar you invest in pre-kindergarten, you see a $10 return on investment.
Economists find that investing in high-quality pre-k yields significant returns for states, helping to reduce the number of people living in poverty or relying on government assistance.
The nation’s business community has also said that pre-k will help states develop a more competitive workforce in today’s global economy.
Ross’s plan focuses on expanding the existing state Arkansas Better Chance (ABC) program, which has done well in producing measurable improvements for children who participate and is ranked as one of the best pre-k programs in the country. However, the program, created in 2003, has been flat-funded since 2008, leading to fears that it may have to start cutting slots for eligible kids. Ross would end the flat funding, immediately implementing a one-time 2.5 percent cost-of-living adjustment (which amounts to about $1.8 million in additional annual funding, plus an additional $2 million annually for administration and professional development) to meet the needs — and maintain the the quality and access — of the existing program. Whether that would be enough, particularly given years of flat funding, would be an open question. But it would be a start.
Ross would also gradually expand eligibility: Currently, the ABC program serves children in families who make less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level (around $48,000 for a family of four). Ross’s plan would expand access, free of charge, to any Arkansas 4-year-old up to 300 percent of FPL (that’s $71,550 for a family of four). Families who make between 300 and 400 FPL (for a family of four, that’s $71,550 to $95,400) would have access at half the cost. Families above 400 FPL would have access at the full rate.
Got all that? In short, Ross’s plan would guarantee a slot in ABC for all 4-year-olds in the state — free for kids below 300 FPL, at half price for kids 300-400 FPL, and at full price for kids above 400 FPL.
Ross’s plan would be phased in over ten years, eventually costing the state around $37.5 million per year (Ross’s camp did not yet have figures on the total cost of the gradual phase-in from 2015 to 2024). Once fully implemented, the plan would annually devote:
*$3.8 million per year to ensuring the high quality of the existing ABC pre-k program
*$30.48 million per year to ensuring access to any 4-year-old whose family makes below 300 percent FPL
*$3.17 million to expand access to any 4-year-old whose family makes between 300 to 400 FPL
These costs are based on the assumption, based on the experience of other states, that though pre-k will be available to every 4-year-old, only up to 80 percent will take advantage of the public program. Currently only around half of the state’s 4-year-olds are enrolled in quality public pre-k programs.
One thing to note here: existing pre-k programs in the state today don’t provide access to all currently eligible children. ABC and HeadStart (a federal program) combined reach 47 percent of eligible 3-year-olds and 80 percent of eligible 4-year-olds. Ross’s plan would guarantee ABC slots for all 4-year-olds, but there could still be more than ten thousand low-income 3-year-olds without slots in public pre-k programs. Meanwhile, the biggest gap in Arkansas comes at the earliest stages of development — only 2 percent of eligible low-income infants and toddlers are covered by Early Head Start and ABC programs in the state. Ross’s plan wouldn’t do anything to address that gap.
Studies on pre-k clearly show that the highest return on investment comes when early childhood education is targeted earlier in a child’s development. Quality pre-k has also been found to have a bigger impact for lower-income children. Given that, early childhood education advocates might quibble with a plan that prioritizes access to all 4-year-olds in a state struggling with access for younger kids, including the state’s poorest. I asked Ross about this and he said, “My first priority is making sure pre-k is available to every 4-year-old in Arkansas. I also recognize the importance of the younger ages as well, but we’ve got to start somewhere.” Fair enough, and expanding access to all 4-year-olds in the state is probably politically more feasible than increasing access to younger, lower-income kids. It also might make sense as a first step toward universal pre-k access given the existing infrastructure already in place in the state for early childhood education for 4-year-olds, an infrastructure that will take some time to build for infants and toddlers.
Ross said that his plan would be paid for by natural revenue growth and the timing of the phase-in would depend on the overall budget picture. He said that it would be possible to do achieve both this investment in pre-k and his tax cut plan.
Asked whether he would prioritize pre-k funding over tax cuts, Ross said, “I’ve said my priorities as governor will be education, job creation, and lower, fairer taxes — and as governor my budgets will reflect that. We can do all these things as we have revenue growth, it’s about priorities.”