By Allison de la Torre ź
Special to the Press-Register ź
Summer vacations are over and Alabama children have embarked upon what promises to be another school year filled with fun and learning. Unfortunately, it’s a different story for the thousands of Alabama children who do not have the opportunity to attend high-quality pre-kindergarten this year.
Alabama’s high-quality First Class pre-k program, which is funded by the state, only serves 6 percent of our 4-year-olds. Just another 16 percent of Alabama 4-year-olds and 9 percent of 3-year-olds attend the federal Head Start pre-k program.
According to the 2012 Annie E. Casey Foundation KIDS COUNT Data Book, 43 percent of Alabama 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in some kind of nursery school or preschool. However, the quality of private pre-k programs varies considerably and middle-class families struggle to afford the cost of tuition.
The most troubling KIDS COUNT finding is that a whopping 57 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds in Alabama lack access to any type of pre-kindergarten experience. While some kids get the opportunity to learn and grow during the critical early years, the majority of Alabama’s 3- and 4-year olds are left behind.
The thousands of Alabama 4-year-olds who do not attend high-quality pre-k this year are not likely to enter kindergarten next year with the skills they need to succeed. Research shows that these children are not likely to read at grade level by third grade, are more likely to need remedial or special education services, and are less likely to graduate from high school.
The same studies show that children who do not attend pre-k are more likely than their peers to become prisoners, live on welfare and rely on costly social programs when they grow up, costing taxpayers millions of dollars.
Brain science has shown that development during the early years of a child’s life establishes either a sturdy or a fragile foundation for everything that follows — and getting things right the first time is easier and less expensive than trying to fix them later when a child is older.
That is why economists estimate that every $1 invested in high-quality pre-k saves taxpayers between $2 and $17 later on by reducing the need for remedial and special education, welfare, and social and criminal justice services.
Alabama’s lack of high-quality pre-k is not just unsettling for the children and families that are left behind; it impacts all of us.
Alabama’s teachers are working hard to reverse an achievement gap that begins before kindergarten and widens as children grow older. Alabama business leaders fear that jobs will leave our state if we can’t produce a highly qualified workforce. Prison costs are squeezing Alabama’s general fund and are projected to worsen.
I encourage people to join the movement to ensure that every Alabama 4-year-old has access to high-quality, voluntary pre-k. They can visit our website (www.alabamaschoolreadiness.org) to sign up for our e-newsletter and learn about the ASRA Pre-K Task Force, a group of leaders working together on a proposal to fully expand First Class Pre-K over a 10-year timeline.
And, while they won’t debate the 2013-14 state budget until January, it is never too early for people to contact their legislators and ask them to increase investments in First Class Pre-K.
Together, we can make sure that more children attend high-quality pre-k when the next school year rolls around. Our children can’t wait.
Allison de la Torre is executive director of the Alabama School Readiness Alliance. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Send submissions to "Your Word," P.O. Box 2488, Mobile, Ala. 36652 or email them to email@example.com.