By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
Thursday, April 21, the Alabama Legislature approved the record $6.3 billion Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget and pay raise for education employees for the 2017 fiscal year. Expanding the State’s Pre-K program for four year olds was one of the top items on the education budget agenda and has unanimous support in the legislature.
The Alabama House of Representatives voted to non-concur with the 2017 ETF budget that came out of the Senate so a conference committee was appointed to deal with differences in the House and Senate passed ETF versions. On Thursday both Houses voted to pass the version that came out of the conference committee. Alabama Governor Robert Bentley (R) is expected to sign the budget and the pay raise.
Gov. Bentley said, “A quality education is the foundation upon which Alabama’s future rests. I believe there is no better investment that we can make as state leaders, and I commend the Alabama Legislature for working together to pass the largest Education Trust Fund Budget since 2008. Alabama’s graduation rate continues to rise and our focus to increase access to voluntary pre-kindergarten for all Alabama children continues as a celebrated priority. The investment that we make today in education is one that I believe will move our State forward and provide individuals with a higher quality of life for generations to come.”
The budget includes a $16 million expansion of Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program. Advocates report that approximately 2,800 more four-year-olds will be able to enroll in the State’s pre-kindergarten program next year thanks to the massive boost in spending.
The Alabama School Readiness Alliance (ASRA) and its Pre-K Task Force supported the bill’s passage.
ASRA Executive Director Allison Muhlendorf said, “We are grateful that State lawmakers have once again made the expansion of Alabama’s nationally acclaimed First Class Pre-K program a top priority in the Education Trust Fund budget. As a direct result of our legislators’ actions today, more Alabama families will have the option to enroll their child in a high-quality First Class Pre-K classroom next school year than ever before.”
The final Fiscal Year 2017 Education Trust Fund Budget increases funding for the State’s voluntary pre-kindergarten program from $48.5 million to $64.5 million. The state is also getting funding from year two of Alabama’s four-year federal Preschool Development Grant. With the grant dollars the $16 million increase will help open approximately 155 additional classrooms and help enroll approximately 2,800 more four year olds than the current school year, bringing the total number of students in the program to approximately 14,500 four year olds statewide. The percentage of Alabama four year olds enrolled will increase from 20 to 25 percent.
According to information provided by ASRA, the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) analyzed student achievement through the 6th grade and claims that First Class Pre-K alumni consistently outperformed their peers in reading and math. PARCA also claim that their finding show that First Class Pre-K closed the achievement gap for participating low-income students by 25 percent.
The ASRA Pre-K Task Force consists of 51 prominent leaders from the business, education, civic, medical, legal, philanthropic, military and child advocacy communities. The task force is in year four of its ten-year campaign to advocate for full funding for the First Class Pre-K program by the 2022-2023 school year. The task force estimates that a total level of funding of $144 million is needed to ensure every family that wants to enroll their four-year-old in a First Class classroom will be able to do so.
Bob Powers is the president of the Eufaula Agency and the co-chair of the Alabama School Readiness Alliance’s Pre-K Task Force. Powers said in a statement, “Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program is working and students who are able to participate are more likely to succeed in school and graduate than those who do not. It is imperative that we expand this voluntary program so that more families gain admission, and we thank lawmakers for doing their part.”
Gov. Bentley said, “We are working to expand access to pre-K for ALL Alabama children.” “Students are the future leaders of our state, and their future success begins at an early age with voluntary pre-K.”