By State Rep. Craig Ford
When I was growing up, kids didn’t start learning the alphabet until they began kindergarten. Today, kids are expected to be able to write their names and read at least some words before they even begin kindergarten.
The expectations are higher, and starting off behind everyone else in their class can leave a kid feeling frustrated and affect his or her self-esteem. Trying to catch up to their classmates can be difficult, and it is hard for teachers and students when some students are ahead of others.
This is why Alabama’s pre-k program is so important. And the program’s success is undeniable.
For 12 years in a row, Alabama’s pre-k program has ranked among the top programs in the entire country! In fact, the National Institute for Early Education Research just last month rated Alabama’s pre-k program as the highest-quality, state-funded voluntary pre-K program in America.
Simply put: Alabama leads the nation when it comes to our pre-K program. The problem is that our pre-K program isn’t available to every child who is eligible.
Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education spokeswoman Ada Wyhe has said there are still nearly 40,000 eligible children who do not have access to pre-K due to a lack of funding. On top of that, she estimates that even with “full statewide access” the program would only serve about 70 percent of Alabama’s eligible children because the program is voluntary.
This is a problem that legislators and state leaders have been working to fix. But there is still a lot of work to be done.
Legislators included an $18.5 million-dollar expansion of the pre-K program in the 2018-2019 education budget, bringing the program’s total funding up to $96 million dollars. With that additional funding, the state will be able to provide the program to 19,000 children across all 67 counties.
But even with that expansion, the program will only serve about 32 percent of eligible four-year-olds.
That is one of the reasons why I have made universal pre-K a top priority.
Pre-K does more than just give kids a firm academic foundation. It also helps them learn at a critical age how to behave in a classroom, what is expected from them in school, and other essential skills that are not just important in school but in life itself.
Go into any failing school and I promise you that they will have a higher rate of disciplinary problems than the non-failing schools. Some of these disciplinary issues are the result of kids getting discouraged because they feel like they are behind everyone else in their class. Others struggle because by the time they started attending school, they already had developed bad habits and bad attitudes that led to disciplinary problems.
But if kids participate in the state’s pre-k program, they are much more likely to be proficient in reading and math (often even ahead of their classmates who didn’t participate in pre-K or preschool) and they will begin kindergarten already understanding how to behave and what’s expected of them.
I’m not saying that pre-K is the magic solution that will solve all of our problems in education. But pre-K undeniably makes a huge difference for the kids who complete the program. And our state leaders should be doing everything we can to make sure every eligible four-year-old in Alabama has the chance to participate.
Pre-K enjoys broad and bipartisan support. When Republicans and Democrats both agree on a policy issue, it speaks volumes about the success and importance of that policy. And this is what gives me hope that universal pre-K can become a reality in our lifetimes.
Craig Ford represents Gadsden and Etowah County in the Alabama House of Representatives. He currently is running for the State Senate in District 10 as an Independent.