Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families pushes legislature for pre-K funding increases

There have been attempts in recent years by state Democrats and advocacy organizations to increase the amount of money the state spends on its pre-K program, known as Arkansas Better Chance (ABC). Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families held a meeting Thursday in Jonesboro to inform locals about potential legislation, including ABC funding that will be considered by the Arkansas General Assembly next year.

AACF senior policy analyst Paul Kelly told Talk Business & Politics the state’s economic future is dependent upon advances in the ABC program.

“We want pre-K in every community … the research is irrefutable,” Kelly said. “From birth to 5 years old, nearly 85% of a child’s brain is developed. We have to reach them during this critical time.”

Attempts to increase pre-K funding have had mixed results in recent years. Arkansas began its program to teach impoverished children ages 3-4 in 2003. Each year the state spends about $111 million, and it reaches more than 25,000 children, according to the state.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson doled an extra $3 million into the program in 2015, but it wasn’t a permanent raise in the program’s budget. It’s been more than eight years since the program received a budget increase, and many other programs around the state have received increases during that time, according to AACF.

Earlier this year, state Democrats attempted to raise ABC’s budget by $10 million, but those efforts fell short. In August, the state’s Republican Party removed pre-K funding support from its platform. Detractors say there are many programs in the state that need money, and there shouldn’t be a commitment to a permanent ABC budget increase.

AACF and other groups have asked legislators to pass a bill allotting an additional $16 million for ABC, but even that’s not enough, Kelly said. An increase in that range will only cover cost of living expenses for ABC workers. One of the many problems ABC faces is constant employee turnover due to low wages.

“It’s a struggle … finding the right kind of workers is difficult, especially when they can make more money working at McDonalds,” Kelly said.

To make the program thrive, the state needs to spend at least $150 million per year, Kelly said. The benefits to the state are incalculable, Kelly said. If you take thousands of economically disadvantaged children and turn them into successful students, high school graduation rates will soar, college attendance and graduations will increase, and the state’s crime rate will drop.

Companies always need skilled and educated workers. Harnessing a larger pool of talented students is common sense, he said.

Another policy position AACF is paying attention to is a series of tax cut proposals. Up to $100 million in tax cuts has been bandied by some legislators, but most think any cuts will range near $50 million, which is reportedly supported by the governor.

Tax cuts could mean program cuts, and AACF is concerned programs that aid children could get pinched, Kelly said. The organization will continue to educate the public through a series of meetings throughout the state in the coming weeks and months, and another series of meetings will be held once the session is completed, he said. Pre-K will remain at the top of the agenda.

“Our economic future depends on it,” he said.

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