By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
Alabama’s statewide pre-K program is widely regarded as one of the best in the country, but Democratic candidate for governor Walt Maddox said Tuesday that the program should be universal.
Maddox on Tuesday announced his plan to use a proposed lottery to take make the pre-K program available to more children in the state.
“Alabama has been nationally recognized for its First-Class Pre-K Program, but there is one problem: only 30 percent of Alabama’s four-year-olds have access,” Maddox said in his proposal.
Maddox said last month he would push for a referendum on a lottery — a proposal he says could generate up to $300 million for public education in Alabama.
The Alabama Education Lottery, as he dubbed it, would be used for supplementing pre-K-12 programs and injecting money into under-funded schools.
On Tuesday, Maddox said he would propose dedicating $90 million of the expected $300 million in lottery proceeds to fully fund the pre-K program and provide access to the remaining 70 percent of 4-year-olds who can’t attend a state pre-K program.
The first round of investments would be used to expand the program to academically at-risk children with the goal of having a universal pre-K program by 2024.
“As a state, our children are not only competing with Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida, they are competing with Germany, China and the rest of the world,” Maddox said. “By providing universal pre-k, we give our children the ability to compete and succeed in a global economic environment.”
Several studies have shown that pre-K and early childhood education programs result in higher test scores, a lower chance of being held back a grade and a fewer number of children with special education placements. Those often last through elementary school, the studies — including one published in the Journal of Childhood Development that studied North Carolina’s program — have found.
Another study of Virginia’s state-funded pre-K program found that kids made large improvements in their alphabet recognition and usage skills.
Other studies have shown that early childhood education programs like pre-K and headstart can have a positive effect on a person’s tendency to commit crimes later in life, according to the Brookings Institute.
Earlier this year, Gov. Kay Ivey announced her education budget would include another $23 million increase for Alabama’s “First Class Pre-K” program. That budget has been approved by the House and is awaiting action in the Senate.
With a budget increase of $13 million last year, the program added 100 new pre-K classrooms, covering an additional 3-5 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds. The Alabama School Readiness Alliance has estimated that the program would need $144 to provide every Alabama family access to the voluntary program — nearly twice the 2017 $77.5 million funding level.
Alabama’s pre-K initiative has been ranked No. 1 by the National Institue for Early Education Research for the past decade and is one of only six state programs to meet or exceed all 10 NIEER benchmark standards.
However, thousands of children remain on wait lists each year, according to the Alabama School Readiness Alliance.
The program is administered by the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education through a grant process. Local public schools, child-care centers, private schools, faith-based centers and Head Start programs often host state-funded pre-K classrooms.