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3 March 2008

Gov. Riley Seeks Increased Funding to Expand Alabama's Early Childhood Education Program

By Laura Tutor
Star Features Editor

Reprinted here in its entirety.

Alabama's Pre-K Program Rates Well Nationally, But How Can Gov. Bob Riley Sell It at Home?

They set off in tandem, lock-stepping like segments of a drunken centipede, with one following so closely behind the other, a hiccup could cause a pileup.

"Wait," calls a student-teacher, trotting forth to bring the children back to the starting point. "One at a time."

They fidget, adjust the bean bags atop their heads.

"OK. Go."

The centipede lurches forth.

"Wait. You need to learn to wait your turn."

Taking turns and following instructions are the lessons this morning for the oldest class at the Jacksonville State University Child Development Center at McClellan. The 4- and 5-year-old students, who'll next year be heading to the Big School, as little ones call it, are taking a break from pre-K studies to get a little physical activity.

And to learn the art of the turn.

It's an intangible skill, one that doesn't show up on assessment tests. But veteran teachers in the elementary school ranks say patience and the ability to follow instructions are fundamental to learning. They're also fundamental to what children across Alabama learn in accredited, structured pre-kindergarten programs.

This legislative session, Gov. Bob Riley and early childhood education advocates are banking on Alabama expanding its current program, Alabama First Class Pre-K. The program, which is scattered throughout the state, ranks high in national experts' opinions for the results it's wrought.

Students who've come through it are less likely to drop out. They're more likely to enter first grade and kindergarten reading, writing and knowing the dynamics of a classroom.

Nationally, studies have shown that, as pre-K graduates move into middle school, their grades are consistently higher, their test scores are higher and the "educational experience" they and their families receive is better than children who have no structured pre-school.

Even in Alabama, where increasing funding for education frequently is smacked down by voters, few teachers, day-care operators or parents would say the program doesn't succeed in getting children ready for school. What remains to be seen is whether the Legislature will pay to expand the program to reach 21,000 4-year-olds by 2011.

To start that process, Riley wants the Legislature to increase funding for the program from $10 million to $30 million and expand the number of students from 2,358 to 7,600. This comes at the same time the state's money experts are estimating a sluggish economy will lead the Legislature to cut education spending from $6.7 billion this year to about $6.2 billion next year.

Alabama established the Office of School Readiness in 1999. Within a year, it was funding pilot programs in 59 classrooms. This year, it costs $10 million to expand the program to 131 classrooms and 2,300 children.

The goal in Riley's latest plan is to build a network of public and private partnerships that, he hopes, will reach middle-income children whose families can't afford private pre-school programs but are too wealthy to qualify for Head Start, the federal readiness program for impoverished children.

"Middle-income families are the ones who are getting left out," says Libby Doggett, executive director of Pre-K Now, a non-partisan group in Washington, that advocates for pre-school readiness programs. "This isn't necessarily about lower-income homes, or a poverty issue. The gap between middle-income children and upper-income children is pretty steep.

"Those opportunities are simply not there for them."

Riley's plan would expand pre-K by offering $45,000 grants for private day cares and pre-schools. The schools, in turn, would teach a state-approved program; any church-based pre-schools would have to stick to that curriculum. The program would allow centers to make up any expenses by charging up to $300 per month to families, based on the families' income and ability to pay.

By expanding the program to private day-care providers, the state hopes to reach children whose parents work, but whose child-care arrangements don't contain any structured learning time. Many of those children stay with neighbors, grandparents, in-home day-care providers and a hodgepodge of arrangements that are all too familiar to working families whose paychecks barely cover the baby-sitter's bill.

The program's supporters say, correctly, that $300 per month is the average cost of child care in Alabama. However, in Calhoun County, pre-K programs with experienced, degree-holding teachers run at least $100 per week, roughly $400 per month. Where families would make up that $100 difference remains to be seen.

"There is no way to recoup fully the cost of providing a quality program," says Patricia Hobbs, director of JSU's McClellan center. "I think parents understand how expensive it is, but I'm not sure the general public does."

Breaking down the center's $110 weekly fee equals about $2.31 per hour on a parent's 40-hour work week. That is typical in Calhoun County for a tested curriculum that is geared to prepare children for kindergarten or first grade.

"JSU really considers this a community service," says Hobbs, who has been at the center 18 months and serves 106 children. Before that, she was in Washington, D.C., working for the U.S. Department of Education, and that followed a career as a fifth-grade teacher.

"I've seen education reforms come and go. One thing that is clear is that children do better in school when they've been in a program that gets them ready for school."

That sentiment is echoed by her fellow teachers at the public and private school level. However, Alabama voters and legislators have not shown themselves keen to increase funding for pre-K.

Riley, who was not available to comment for this story, and pre-K proponents have taken another route to convincing them: selling early childhood education as an economic development model.

"This is the smartest investment we as a state can make in the future of our children, and these organizations understand that," Riley said last month. "They are all together on this, because they truly care about the quality of education and the future of Alabama's children."

Around the country, more than 70 state and local economic development teams have formed to study child care, pre-K and the demand for early childhood education programs, according to a 2007 Cornell University report. The teams, made up of economic developers, child-care providers and public officials, have looked at pre-K's impact. What they've found, beyond the jobs created in a growing child-care industry, is that a dollar spent on pre-K stimulates the same amount or more economic activity than a dollar spent in K-12 education.

Also, by expanding the field of quality pre-K programs and helping families pay for them communities and states increase the number of parents who can enter the work force, the Cornell researchers found. Some 30 percent of parents in one survey said their child-care arrangements had been interrupted in the previous year.

Many of those parents had opted out of the work force's professional ranks, not because they couldn't keep a job, but because they couldn't afford or find a pre-school that met their standards.

"For a long time, economists have thought of education as an investment portfolio like any other," says Clive Belfield, an economics professor at Queens College at the City University of New York. "Looking at it as an investment, you ask what is the return on the children themselves, the return to the state on that investment.

"You look at the return on what sort of society is it if we have all kids ready for school?"

What his and others' research has shown is that, in educational-funding terms, the biggest bang for the buck comes at the pre-school level. They're still murky on why that is, but the effect of pre-K is now backed by four decades of data showing:

Students from pre-K follow instructions better, on average. That helps classroom cooperation, which allows teachers in elementary grades to spend more time teaching and less time fussing.

They also are more familiar with materials and tools that are common in modern classrooms. They come to school on the first day ready to read, write, color and cut. That means they can fully participate in lessons and activities from the first day and are not playing catch-up to their peers.

The children's basic academic engine has been turned on. They come in accustomed to such things as story time and sitting to hear someone read or waiting to ask a question. They know that books and magazines have information in them, and they ask questions based on that information.

They develop skills that have practical applications beyond a classroom.

"It's not just something for low-income children," Belfield says, after ticking off his list. "So many things need those practical applications, whether it's orienting their way through the health-care system or getting a specialized job."

Their parents are accustomed to seeing their children learn. That means from the early grades, parents will be more likely to take an interest in their children's school work. Research shows, Belfield says, that getting parents involved early means they'll be on hand in the middle-school years. A parent who hasn't been engaged from their child's first class is less likely to step in and help when they're teenagers.

Pre-K graduates are less likely to drop out, which, over time, reduces the strain on the justice system. A black boy who has dropped out of high school has about a 100 percent chance of being incarcerated at some time, and a white boy has about a 20 percent chance, Belfield says.

"If you think to yourself, 'I don't care if those other kids drop out,' well, you do care if you're paying $40,000 a year for incarceration," says Belfield, who has a 3-year-old daughter.

They'll also care if their child is in a class with children who don't know how to behave, says Becki Etheridge, a retired elementary school teacher who now works part-time at JSU's McClellan center.

"They have to have some structure," Etheridge says a few minutes before starting a music class for toddlers. "Kindergarten and first-grade teachers have so much to do these days."

Etheridge is qualified to teach the Alabama Reading Initiative and incorporates that into her reading lessons with the older children. She says early literacy programs have proven their worth. They've shown that getting children to learn while they're young leads to teenagers who learn and finish high school.

"I believe they are capable of learning so much," she says. "We just have to be there to help them and get them started."

Some 15 years ago, Georgia started its Bright From the Start program in much the way Alabama addressed school readiness. The first class is just now set to graduate from college, and Georgia has learned a few new lessons every year since, says Mary Mazarky, the assistant administrator for Georgia's program.

She says Riley is correct in wanting to expand the program slowly and to tap private providers and not rely just on programs run through public school. For one thing, school systems run out of space. For another, parents want a choice. They need to be able to coordinate child-care pick-up and drop-off, and public schools simply do not have the flexibility of private day cares and pre-schools, most of which stay open for school-mandated holidays, such as President's Day and Martin Luther King Day.

That sounds like a small thing, but when parents come to picking a provider, convenience and cost often outweigh quality, says Doggett of the national pre-K group. Indeed, the Cornell study found that, when it comes to assessing the quality of curriculum in a pre-K, parents aren't the best of judges.

That's where having a monitored, accredited curriculum ensures that students entering school know the same things, Mazarky says.

"Georgia has invested heavily in this," she says, pointing out that the $4,000 it takes to serve each of the 79,000 participating pre-K students in Georgia is from the state's lottery. "It's incredibly successful, and we're looking to build those bridges."

About Laura Tutor

Laura Tutor is the features editor for The Star.

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