Quality Pre-K Still Needs State Investment to Thrive

Note: This blog is third in a series of posts covering the findings in the 2017 Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count Data Book. 

Every year, the Annie E. Casey Foundation releases the Kids Count Data Book, featuring new numbers on the well-being of children in Arkansas. This year’s Data Book shows that more than half of Arkansas’ 3- and 4-year-olds didn’t attend preschool, a proven academic boost for kids as they go through school. This puts us in 14th place nationally for this indicator, compared to 19th place last year. While Arkansas’s enrollment level is on par with the national average of 53 percent, the rise in the number of Arkansas 3- and 4-year-olds attending pre-K can most likely be attributed to a $1 billion federal funding boost for U.S. preschool programs, rather than significant new state investment in the Arkansas Better Chance (ABC) pre-K program. Announced at the end of 2014, the additional federal funding allowed Arkansas to expand pre-K access for more children. However, there is no guarantee that this grant funding will be preserved in the current federal administration’s budget.

This should serve as a red flag for our state. Arkansas has made much progress over time in raising quality and access to early education for children. But now, it’s time for state legislators to get serious about investing in our littlest learners. Governor Hutchinson and the legislature gave pre-K a small bump in funding during the last legislative session: only $3 million out of the more than $42 million that AACF estimated the ABC program would need just to maintain the quality of our current pre-K slots. This amount doesn’t scratch the surface of meeting the needs of programs statewide. Before that small bump, pre-K had only received a one-time $3 million bump since 2008. Additionally, the Governor recently announced a state budget cut for fiscal year 2018 that cuts overall spending by $43 million in Category B — which is where the $3 million pre-K increase is. Future pre-K increases need to be in category A, where they are more protected from any budget cuts.

One thing the new report shows is that we get results where we put our resources. Arkansas made some progress expanding ARKids First health insurance coverage for children between 2010 and 2014, reducing the percentage of children without health insurance from 7 to 5 percent, now meeting the national average. Imagine if we made the same commitment to pre-K! Our children are the future of our state, and our workforce will depend on their success in school and in life. For Arkansas’s sake, we must prioritize our littlest learners with our public dollars and give all children a fair start in education.

Read our initial blog post here. Our post focused on the health care findings in this year’s Data Book can be found here. 

Learn more about the specific public policies that can improve our child well-being here.