Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Ross announced a plan to expand access to pre-kindergarten education for four-year olds in Arkansas, a proposal that comes with a $37 million a year price tag when fully implemented.
“No child in Arkansas should be on a waiting list for pre-K,” Ross said, citing a story from the campaign trail of a family unable to access the program.
Ross said if the state took 10 years to implement his proposal it would cost $3.7 million annually. He said he hoped to accomplish improved access to pre-K in a shorter time frame.
“This will be our big ticket item related to education,” Ross said, describing it as the “front and center” piece of his education reform initiative. He said other education proposals would be forthcoming but with smaller price tags.
The plan would include a a sliding fee scale based on the child’s household income for the Arkansas Better Chance (ABC) program.
Ross said his proposal would initially expand the existing ABC pre-k program – free of charge – to include families who make below 300 percent of the poverty level, or below $59,370 for a family of three. Current law sets the limit at 200 percent of poverty.
To bump free pre-K to those making below 300 percent of the poverty level, it would cost $30.48 million, according to data provided by the Ross campaign. That includes bringing all of the currently eligible children below the 200 percent level and adding the new universe of 300 percent eligibles.
There would also be an initial $3.83 million cost to “ensure the high quality” of the ABC program, which would include a cost-of-living-adjustment for the program that has not seen increased funding since 2008, and some new administrative costs for an expanded program.
Eventually, Ross would make the ABC pre-k program accessible to families who make between 300 and 400 percent of the poverty level at a reduced rate of half the cost of the program – or currently $70 per week. That price tag would add another $3.17 million.
In the last phase of his plan, Ross would make the program available at the full rate for those families making above 400 percent of the poverty level. There would be no cost to this addition.
Ross said his education proposal was part of a three-prong set of priorities that would guide him as Governor.
He said education, job creation, and lower, fairer taxes would drive his policy decisions. Ross said he would not place one priority as higher than another and would subscribe to a balanced budget.
Ross faces Lynette Bryant in the May 20 Democratic primary. The Democratic winner faces the winner of the Republican primary between Asa Hutchinson and Curtis Coleman.
UPDATE: The two GOP candidates for Governor issued statements regarding the Ross pre-K plan.
Asa Hutchinson, a Republican candidate for Governor, issued the following statement in response to Ross’ pre-K initiative.
“I support efforts to increase funding for our existing Pre-K program, but the Ross-Burkhalter plan to expand Pre-K to families making up to 400% of the Federal Poverty Level is a classic example of over-promising in an election year and it is irresponsible.
Gov. Beebe has not been able to fully fund the current program and we should not be promising a bigger government program when we haven’t met our current needs. Politicians in Washington, D.C. make promises to spend money without explaining how they’ll pay for it. That is how Washington creates a deficit but it is not how Arkansas should manage its budget. A serious candidate for governor will not make spending increases without telling us where the money will come from.”
Curtis Coleman, who is also seeking the Republican nomination, said:
“Mr. Ross’ goals are laudable, but his plan is not supported by real-world experience. In 1998, our neighbors in Oklahoma began providing ‘free’ preschool for all of the state’s four-year-olds. Oklahoma taxpayers pay mightily for the program, topping $146 million annually or about $7,400 per child. In the six years immediately preceding state-funded preschool, Oklahoma reading scores were higher than the national average. Today, Oklahoma children score 4 points below the national average. In fact, Oklahoma ranks last in the nation on the NAEP for fourth-grade reading gains since 1992. That’s a zero return on a 15-year investment.
“If we want to reduce the number of Arkansans in prisons or living on government assistance, if we want a better-educated workforce to attract the good-paying jobs of the future, we must stop forcing every student into a four-year degree mold and return vocational and technical training to our high schools and two-year community colleges. Arkansas is desperate for a skilled labor force, and we won’t be able to fully revive our economy and produce the kind of good-paying jobs Arkansans are looking for until we restore vocational training to our education priorities.”