Advocates of access to pre-K education gained a major supporter today when Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Ross announced his plan to offer pre-K to every four year old in the state. The Democratic hopeful’s $37 million a year plan would provide free pre-K by 2025 to all four year olds whose families make less than 300 percent of poverty, with reduced rates for families with higher incomes.
Ross said the state’s existing ABC program doesn’t have the capacity to serve the demand for early childhood education statewide
“The bottom line is this, no child in Arkansas should ever be on a waiting list for pre-K. Over the last few decades we have made great progress in expanding access to pre-K but funding has been flat lined since 2008 and we are running the risk of getting left behind,” said Ross.
Speaking at Fair Park Early Childhood Center in Little Rock, Ross said investing in education early pays dividends. He argued every dollar invested in early education results in a $10 return.
“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” said Ross.
Efforts led in part by Democratic state senators Joyce Elliott and Linda Chesterfield of Little Rock to increase funding by just $2 million, taken from a $125 million surplus fund, failed this past fiscal session but Ross says as governor he could work with the legislature to find the initial investment.
Read Ross's full plan as detailed by his campaign here.
Below are responses KUAR received from other gubernatorial candidates.
Republican Asa Hutchinson:
“I support efforts to increase funding for our existing Pre-K program but the Ross-Burkhalter plan to expand Pre-K to families making up to 400% of the Federal Poverty Level is a classic example of over promising in an election year and it is irresponsible. Gov. Beebe has not been able to fully fund the current program and we should not be promising a bigger government program when we haven't met our current needs. Politicians in Washington, D.C. make promises to spend money without explaining how they’ll pay for it. That is how Washington creates a deficit but it is not how Arkansas should manage its budget. A serious candidate for governor will not make spending increases without telling us where the money will come from.”
Republican Curtis Coleman:
“Mr. Ross’ goals are laudable but his plan is not supported by real-world experience. In 1998, our neighbors in Oklahoma began providing ‘free’ preschool for all of the state’s four-year-olds. Oklahoma taxpayers pay mightily for the program, topping $146 million annually or about $7,400 per child. In the six years immediately preceding state-funded preschool, Oklahoma reading scores were higher than the national average. Today, Oklahoma children score 4 points below the national average. In fact, Oklahoma ranks last in the nation on the NAEP for fourth-grade reading gains since 1992. That's a zero return on a 15-year investment."
“If we want to ‘reduce the number of Arkansans in prisons or living on government assistance, if we want a better-educated workforce to attract the good-paying jobs of the future’, we must stop forcing every student into a four-year degree mold and return vocational and technical training to our high schools and two-year community colleges. Arkansas is desperate for a skilled labor force, and we won’t be able to fully revive our economy and produce the kind of good-paying jobs Arkansans are looking for until we restore vocational training to our education priorities.”
Libertarian Frank Gilbert:
"This sounds like another one-size-fits-all, big-government program from a typical Democrat. The cost to taxpayers is ignored while he talks about it being free or reduced cost for users. Even worse than the expense is the fact that parents are not given any real options. In Pre-K and every other grade level it is time to allow parents to choose what works for their children. Mike Ross has missed the point - again."