Op-Ed printed in the Birmingham News
By Mike Luce and Bob Powers
We are proud of many things in Alabama, but nothing more than our children and football.
With the latter, we spare no expense to cultivate a culture of excellence. We have built the best facilities, assembled the best coaching staffs and recruited the best athletes in the country. And, as expected, these efforts have paid off, and there is no question which state, once again, is at the top of the football pinnacle.
But, as The Birmingham News wrote last month, Alabama is No. 1 in more than football; we are also home to the nation's best prekindergarten program. We have achieved this honor six years in a row, according to a new report by the National Institute for Early Education. Even Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant never matched that accomplishment.
Alabama's state-funded pre-K program -- aptly named First Class -- has the potential to not only propel our children toward a lifetime of success, but also help alleviate many of the social and economic concerns in our state. Hundreds of rigorous studies conducted over the past 50 years demonstrate that children who attend high-quality pre-K are more prepared for the classroom (and eventually the work force) than those who do not. On the flip side, children who do not attend pre-K are less likely to read by third grade, less likely to graduate from high school and more likely to go to prison than those who attend pre-K.
By tackling the root of our educational problems, high-quality pre-K provides a return on investment that far outweighs its initial cost. First Class Pre-K is not just another grade in school. The program meets all 10 of NIEER's research-based quality standards, hires educators with bachelor's degrees and specialized training in early childhood education, and serves 4-year-olds in a diverse array of settings, including child care, faith-based centers, Head Start, elementary schools and even community colleges.
While Alabama's First Class pre-K program is the best in the country, it is one of the least utilized; serving just 6 percent of the state's 4-year-olds.
This begs a question for our state leaders: If the program works, why are we shortchanging our children by only making it available to a few?
Our failure to fully invest in pre-K is both morally wrong and financially ignorant. That is why we and others in the business, philanthropic and education communities have convened a task force of leaders from across Alabama to develop a long-term vision and suggested timeline for expanding pre-K to all 4-year-olds.
In recent years, Alabama's elementary school principals, local superintendents, school boards and community organizations have been doing their best to expand pre-K with limited local, federal and private funds. The state of Alabama must meet them halfway by incrementally increasing state dollars for First Class Pre-K. As The News pointed out, the cost for fully funding pre-K is relatively tiny compared to our overall education budget. With an additional $12 million per year, over the course of 10 years, we could expand pre-K to all 4-year-olds whose families wish to participate.
We know times are tough. Lawmakers have a number of difficult fiscal choices to make, and we commend our governor and state legislative leaders for protecting pre-K investments. But, sooner rather than later, we must find funding to expand First Class.
Our failure to fully fund pre-K in Alabama has directly contributed to billions of dollars of social costs, continuing academic woes and a failure to cultivate a work force that is prepared for the global economy.
As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Let's pay a relatively small amount up-front to expand pre-K so we won't have to pay a lot more later on.
Don't just take our word for it. Visit a high-quality pre-K program or ask a kindergarten teacher about the difference she sees in the children who come into her classroom ready to learn. Nothing compares to the look in the eyes of a 4-year-old who has attended high-quality pre-K. There is a sparkle that reflects a joy for learning and life. In our opinion, helping that child reach his full potential means more to Alabama than a thousand crystal footballs.
About the writers:
Mike Luce is president and COO of Harbert Management in Birmingham.Email: email@example.com
. Bob Powers is president of The Eufaula Agency in Eufaula. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
They are the co-chairs of the Alabama School Readiness Alliance Pre-K Task Force.