I am a firm believer that a strong democracy cannot exist without a strong public engagement. So what’s a better place to start than following your state’s election? I am particularly interested in the 2014 gubernatorial election because we need another progressive Governor (thank you, Governor Beebe, for vetoing the 20-week abortion ban bill!) in the increasingly conservative state of Arkansas. It’s going to be a tight race to the Governor’s mansion in November.
Mike Ross, the Democratic candidate for Governor of Arkansas, unveiled his plan for early childhood education yesterday at Fair Park Early Childhood Center. Ross will likely snag the Democratic nomination for the job in the primary, facing likely Republican nominee Asa Hutchinson in November. According to the most recent poll, released last month by OnMessage Inc , Hutchinson is leading at 44%, with Ross at 36%.
With his new education plan, Ross aims to provide universal access to high-quality pre-k for all 4-year-olds in AR by 2025. Costing an extra $37.4 million to the current budget of $102.5 million, Ross plans to expand Arkansas Better Chance (ABC), a state-funded pre-k program for low income family, through a sliding fee scale based on household income. With the plan, nearly two-thirds of all 4-year-olds in AR will have access to quality pre-k education by 2025: free for kids from families below 300% federal poverty line, and at full price for kids from families above 400% federal poverty line.
ABC is not the only public pre-k program for low income families in Arkansas. Together with Head Start, a federally funded program offering pre k education, health, nutrition services and support for families below poverty line, the two programs reach 37% eligible 3-year-olds and 80% of eligible 4-year-old. While Head Start has suffered from a 5.27% budget cut in 2013, ABC’s budget has been stagnant since 2008. Arkansas is one of the few states where pre-k budget hasn’t been cut.
Studies have shown that for every $1 invested in pre-k education, there is a $10 return on investment. Investing in pre-k education can help shrink the education gap between children from low income families and others. A study by the National Institution for Early Education (NIEER) has found that children who attended ABC show improved score in vocabulary and math in second grade, and in literacy through the third grade. In a national report, the NIEER ranks Arkansas at 11th in access for 4-year-olds, 5th in access for 3-year-olds, and 10th nationally in state spending per child.
It’s definitely a good move by Mike Ross campaign to release this education plan before the primary next month to sway the undecided voter, especially when the other candidate for the Democratic nomination, Dr. Lynette Bryant, has worked as a substitute teacher and is an education activist. However, his plan lacks clarification on where the extra $37.4 million is coming from. The conservative PAC Americans for Prosperity and Hutchinson have accused Ross of “overpromising” and “irresponsible”, citing the difficulty to fund the current ABC program. This is indeed my concern as well, as Ross has promised a $575 million state income tax cut and a $40 million tax cut for manufacturers’ machinery reparation earlier in the campaign.
On the other hand, the education plan fails to address the access gap between 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds. The plan would guarantee ABC slots for all 4-year-olds, but there would be more than ten thousand low-income 3 year-olds on the waiting list. “No child should ever be on a waiting list for pre-k in Arkansas”, said Ross at the press conference. However, only 2 percent of eligible low-income infants and toddlers are covered by Early HeadStart (federally funded program for 2 year-olds) and ABC programs. The plan doesn’t address any solution to this huge gap.
I totally believe that investing in pre-k education is a good place to start closing the achievement gap between children from low income families and others, but not when we don’t know where the money is coming from. Maybe voters will be more convinced when his campaign can release studies to back up the claim that this investment will reduce the number of Arkansans in prisons or living on welfare. If Mike Ross is elected as the 46th Governor of Arkansas, maybe he should first spend the first $3.83 million to adjust the cost of the program ensure quality for over 15,000 enrolled children.