Birmingham News Editorial: Government must be willing to invest in Alabama's future; if it does, payoff will be huge
What's in a name? Sometimes, everything.
Alabama's voluntary prekindergarten program is named First Class. Indeed, it lives up to its name.
Alabama's pre-K is one of the highest-quality programs in the country, according to a report released Tuesday by the National Institute for Early Education Research. For the sixth year in a row, First Class meets or exceeds all 10 of NIEER's benchmarks for quality pre-K. Alabama is one of just five states -- the others are Alaska, Georgia, North Carolina and Rhode Island -- to meet all 10 benchmarks.
First Class is a point of pride for state officials (Gov. Robert Bentley tweeted about it Tuesday), and it should be. The program has a chance to transform Alabama. Studies show that children who attend top-quality pre-K programs like First Class are less likely to repeat grades or need special education, and they are less likely as they age to be on welfare or commit crimes and wind up in prison. They are more likely to end up in higher paying jobs.
Now, the bad news. First Class is far from first in reaching the children it is eligible to serve. In fact, Alabama ranks 33rd in access among the 39 states that provide pre-K, according to the NIEER report. Just 6.4 percent of Alabama's 60,000-plus eligible 4-year-olds are enrolled in First Class. Unlike many states, Alabama does not offer pre-K to 3-year-olds.
It is a tired, worn-out story in Alabama, one of too few resources for programs so stellar other states want to copy. We know how to do great things, we just don't want to pay for them. Now or later.
We see it with First Class, but we also have seen it with the acclaimed Alabama Reading Initiative, which started as a pilot program in 1998 and took a decade to fully reach only K-3 schools. State Department of Education officials credit the reading initiative with historic gains in reading by fourth-graders on the National Assessment of Education Progress.
The similar Math, Science and Technology Initiative, which is expected to grow math and science scores like the Reading Initiative has with reading, has spread a little more quickly, and is now in about half of schools.
An Advanced Placement pilot project that has had stunning results upping the number of students taking and passing AP tests in its first few years will be in 80 of about 540 high schools at the end of the five-year grant that funds most of the program.
With First Class, the growth (or lack of it) has been at a glacier's pace. Alabama began pre-K in 2000, so we're a dozen years down the road and still serve fewer than 4,000 4-year-olds statewide.
We can do better. We must do better. There are signs that as the economy continues to recover, we will do better.
The Alabama School Readiness Alliance, a partnership of groups and individuals working to make high-quality pre-K a top public-policy priority in the state, has put together a task force of business leaders, children's advocates, educators and philanthropists pushing to expand First Class. Last month, the task force received a cost report done by NIEER's Steve Barnett and Megan Carolan. The report shows Alabama over the next decade could expand pre-K to 70 percent of eligible 4-year-olds at a cost (in today's dollars) to state government of about $125 million a year more than it spends now. Last fiscal year, the state spent $17.8 million on pre-K, according to NIERR's annual report.
Funding First Class for about 43,000 children would bring pre-K to all Alabama 4-year-olds who likely would take advantage of it, the report said. Other children would attend private-school programs or remain at home.
The total cost to expand First Class would be about $200 million more than is being spent now, which would include fees from parents, local and federal funding and private donations.
Adding about $12 million in state funding each year over a decade should not be a deal stopper, especially when a quality pre-K program can save tons of money down the road. The payoff for the state by expanding First Class to all the 4-year-olds who would use it is "stunning," said Barnett, the director of NIEER and an economist.
The state could reap benefits of from $2 billion to $3.4 billion, Barnett said in an interview. Those figures are based on many, many studies, he said, including some of his own.
"We could be off by a lot, but to pass the benefit-cost test, you only have to get 1-to-1," he said. "When you're talking 10-to-1, you've knocked it out of the ballpark."
Barnett added this caution: "This is a pretty safe bet, but it's only a safe bet if you do an intensive, high-quality program."
Like First Class.
As frustrating as it is to see Alabama's inability to expand First Class' reach, Barnett said it is even worse to see states that enroll a higher percentage of children with lower-quality programs. Those states won't get much, if any, return on their investment, he said.
"I would rather see a state move slowly and serve as many kids as they can with a quality program, because at least for those kids, you're getting the payoff," Barnett said. "That's the advantage Alabama has. You've got a first-class program. All you need to do is expand it as fast as you can without eroding the quality."
That's all we need to do, and a decade is a reasonable timetable for an expansion that maintains the program's high quality, according to Barnett.
In the grand scheme of things, $143 million a year in state funding isn't that much. It is 2.5 percent of this year's $5.59 billion education budget, which, the economy willing, should grow substantially over the next decade. That said, there are, and will continue to be, many, many needs. What has to happen, as Barnett pointed out, is that political leaders must decide pre-K is a top priority.
It is incumbent on the governor, especially since he has drawn a no-new-taxes line he is unlikely to erase, to be the champion of First Class. Bentley must lead on a plan to grow funding every year over the next decade until First Class reaches all the 4-year-olds who can be helped by pre-K.
Yes, state budgets are in crisis. But we must find a way every year to invest more in Alabama's future. The payoff -- in money saved and in better lives for Alabamians -- is too big to ignore.
We have a first-class pre-K program, one of the best in the country. Let's give it first-class funding.
Click here to read the story on al.com.