By State Rep. Craig Ford
I believe that everyone between the ages of four and 64 should either be in a good school or a good job. That is why one of my long-time goals has been to see every four-year-old in Alabama have access to the state’s nationally-recognized pre-K program.
The state has done a good job in recent years of expanding the program, and expanding the program has received broad and bipartisan support. In fact, in an age where Democrats and Republicans rarely agree on any major issue, pre-K has been the one program that has unified everybody.
Why is the pre-K program so popular and so important? Because it works!
A recent study conducted by the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama has provided more evidence that kids who participate in the state’s pre-K program are stronger in math and reading by the time they get to third grade than the rest of the students in their class.
The impact of the pre-K program can especially be seen in low-income communities and among minority students. But all students benefit from the program.
I can’t stress enough how important it is for kids to be reading and performing math at their grade level by the time they reach third grade. Research has shown that kids who cannot read at grade level by the third grade are much more likely to end up in prison.
To put it another way, if we don’t invest in education, we will have to invest in more prisons.
Early childhood education is essential to helping more kids reach math and reading goals, as well as nurturing good habits that help kids learn what is expected of them and how to behave in the classroom. I also firmly believe that if we can address disciplinary and behavioral problems at an earlier age, we can prevent a lot of the problems that kids sometimes struggle with as they get older.
As Brian Bucher, Regional President of PNC Bank and a member of the Alabama School Readiness Alliance Pre-K Task Force, wrote back in 2016: “During the first five years of life, children begin to learn vo-cabulary, language, socio-emotional behavior, literacy, math, spatial reasoning, ex-ecutive function and self-regulation. Although the impact of all this learning and development is nearly invisible to the eye, the impact on children is immeasurable and often determines their chances of success in school and life.”
Alabama’s pre-K program is also a shining example to the rest of the country. Our program has ranked among the top programs in America every single year for over a decade, and we are one of only two states in the country to meet all 10 quality benchmarks as established by the National Institute for Early Education Research.
With this much success, you would think that we would be making pre-K a priority. But while the program has gotten much-needed support and funding so that it could expand to new locations, it is not yet available throughout the state.
The last several years have seen a lot of debate about failing schools (thankfully, we do not have any failing schools in Etowah, Cherokee and DeKalb counties). But instead of wasting more money on charter schools or diverting more money away from our public schools to send kids in Birmingham and Montgomery to private school, we should be investing more in what we know works – Alabama’s outstanding pre-K program.
Our pre-K program is un-iversally respected, and I say it is time for it to be universally available to every child in Alabama. The education budget for this year is a step in the right direction, but more is needed for the future.
We can make universal pre-K a reality. We just have to have the will to make it happen!
Craig Ford is an Independent who represents Gadsden and Etowah County in the Alabama House of Representatives. He served as the House Minority Leader from 2010-2016.