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The Arkansas General Assembly gathers for the 2024 Fiscal Session from Apr. 10 to May 9.

Coalition demands funding boost for Pre-K, childcare in Arkansas

Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families Executive Director Keesa Smith urged lawmakers to invest in programs like Pre-K and childcare during a press conference in the Capitol rotunda on April 11, 2024.
Antoinette Grajeda
Arkansas Advocate
Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families Executive Director Keesa Smith urged lawmakers to invest in programs like Pre-K and childcare during a press conference in the Capitol rotunda on April 11, 2024.

A coalition of advocacy groups urged lawmakers Thursday to invest in families during the fiscal session by supporting programs they say have been unfunded or underfunded, such as Pre-K, childcare and disability services.

Members of Arkansas Coalition for Strong Families, who organized Thursday’s press conference at the state Capitol, said investing in these programs will improve the quality of life for all Arkansans.

ACSF co-chair Syard Evans said that despite the work the coalition’s 16 member organizations engage in on a daily basis, “the needs of everyday Arkansans are unmet to a great degree.”

“Now is the time for us to make sure that we’re communicating clearly the need for those investments in everyday Arkansans,” Evans said. “This is not the time for us to give public dollars back to wealthy corporations and citizens in the form of tax cuts. Not while we still have so many unmet needs of everyday Arkansans.”

During last year’s special session, legislators lowered the top individual and top corporate income tax rates to 4.4% and 4.8%, respectively. They also created a one-time, non-refundable $150 tax credit for those earning up to about $90,000 last year. This was the latest in a series of tax cuts lawmakers have enacted since 2015.

Evans, CEO of disability service provider Arkansas Support Network, told the Advocate there needs to be an investment in caregiver supports and services and “a reframe about the way we think about those Arkansans that are taking care of everyone across our community.”

Services provided by Arkansas Support Network are funded through a Medicaid federal match program, and Evans said the state’s portion of that budget “is a fraction of what our total spend is.”

“If we were to increase the amount of dollars that we spent on Medicaid waiver, we would not only be able to increase the rates of pay that we provide direct-support professionals, we would also increase the amount of federal money that’s coming into the state to fund those services and wages,” she said.

Underfunding the disability service workforce, jobs that require skilled workers, means disability services providers are competing with entry-level jobs like fast food and retail that pay $15 and $16, Evans said.

Low wages are also a challenge for paraprofessionals working in education, Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families Executive Director Keesa Smith told the Advocate. While the LEARNS Act, a sweeping education law championed by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, increased the state’s minimum teacher salary to $50,000, it did not include a raise for classified positions, like paraprofessionals.

“Those are all things that may have been inconsequential when LEARNS rolled out, but we’ve got to do something about it or we’re going to lose paraprofessionals and we’re not making teachers’ lives easier in the classroom,” Smith said.

About $100 million of the governor’s proposed $109 million budget increase supports LEARNS Act initiatives. About 60% of the overall increase, roughly $65.8 million, is for the state’s new voucher program that provides state funds for allowable expenses, such as private school tuition.

There are several needs in education, Smith said, and the governor’s investment in LEARNS initiatives is just one part of that. However, there are additional ways to support children, she said, including investing in pre-K and childcare services.

While Smith said she’s not taking issue with where the budget’s increases are, she said there is an opportunity with the state’s surplus and other funds to make investments specifically for children in areas that have been neglected for years.

“I think there was concerted action to keep the budget from ballooning, but what that means is again, things that we’ve kicked the can on for years…they’re still not being addressed and they are not going to magically fix themselves,” Smith said.

The governor’s proposed budget increase of 1.76% is significantly less than what’s been proposed in recent years, but Smith noted during Thursday’s press conference that the increase “is far below what’s needed to even keep up inflation.”

“People drive our economy. When Arkansans do well, the Arkansas economy does well,” Smith said. “…We need a state budget that reflects this and puts people first, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it is the critical thing to do in order to move Arkansas forward.”

Advocates want to speak with receptive legislators about their concerns, but if nothing happens during the fiscal session, Smith said she’s hopeful these conversations will spur action during next year’s regular legislative session.

Editor's Note: This story Arkansas coalition asks lawmakers to invest in programs that support families during fiscal session appeared first on Arkansas Advocate.

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.
Arkansas Advocate intends to show how state government affects the lives of everyday Arkansans so they can make informed decisions about themselves, their families and their communities.