Pre-K funding increase battle looms when the Arkansas General Assembly convenes in January

by George Jared ( 66 views 

Jonesboro Pre-K program Director Diane Roush had a vision in North Jonesboro that became a reality in 2015. She wanted to extend the High Quality Preschool Program (HQPP) to north Jonesboro, easily the most economically depressed area in the city. A $685,800 federal grant made her dream a reality.

The grant is set to expire after this school year and there’s no guarantee it will be extended, Roush told Talk Business & Politics. Jonesboro School District Superintendent Dr. Kim Wilbanks has assured Roush and Jonesboro Pre-K North assistant director Karen Swift the school district will find another way to fund it. If the federal grant ceases, the program will undoubtedly need state money to survive, and state legislators are likely to battle over increases to pre-K funding during the upcoming session.

“It’s pretty plain and simple. Do we want to send kids to pre-K or do we want to pay for more prison beds down the road?” Roush said. “It’s that simple.”

District 21 Sen. John Cooper, R-Jonesboro, said he hasn’t had time to thoroughly study the pros and cons of a pre-K funding increase because he’s been tackling other issues such as healthcare and tax cuts. In the coming weeks, he said he will study the problem more closely.

Cooper remained mum as to whether he will support an increase in funding. He said there are many agencies and programs that need more money, and he’s not sure if pre-K will be a top priority. A litany of research has touted the positive outcomes produced by pre-K programs, but Cooper said he’s read other research that states the advantages gained by 3-4 year olds in the program are virtually gone by the time they reach 3rd grade.

“I really need to do a little more research before I make any final determinations,” Cooper said. “It’s something I’ll be interested to study.”

Attempts by Talk Business & Politics to contact District 22 Senate-Elect Dave Wallace, R-Leachville, were unsuccessful.

Each year Arkansas spends about $111 million on pre-K programs throughout the state. Last year the program received a one-time, $3 million boost from the state. State Democrats attempted earlier this year to increase pre-K funding by $10 million, but those attempts failed. Advocacy groups have asked for funding increases of up to $40 million.

Pre-K proponents tout research that indicates economic disadvantaged children perform as well as their economically advantaged counterparts in school if they’ve been through a pre-K program. More than 56% of residents in northern Jonesboro live at or below the federal poverty threshold, according to the school district. About 23% of residents in other parts of the city live at or below the poverty line.

Roush said when children do better in school it leads to better and more productive lives. Ultimately, it will lead to reduced crime rates and economic growth, she said.

“The advantages to society are pretty obvious,” she said.

About 100 children attend classes at Jonesboro Pre-K North, Swift said. The program has retro-fitted a building on Johnson Avenue adjacent to the Bill’s Fresh Market in the heart of northern Jonesboro. The building has five classrooms, and an outdoor play area.

“We are elated to have this facility,” Swift said.

Children who live in poverty are exposed to about 616 words per hour at home, according to a study conducted by the University of Kansas. Working class children are exposed to 1,251 words per hour, and children of high earning parents are exposed to more than 2,100 words per hour. Many of the children they cater to have difficulty communicating, and if it’s not corrected, the students will fall further and further behind once they begin attending school, Roush said.

Classes are hands on, similar to concepts associated with project-based learning. Teachers enrich their students’ vocabulary and expose them to experiences they might not otherwise be exposed to, Swift said. Curriculum can be based around a concept as simple as going on a camping trip, and learning activities are interactive. Students are also taught about the importance of eye-contact during conversations. Emotional concepts such as empathy for others are also taught, she said. Many don’t understand what empathy is and some have a hard time grasping various emotional states in the people around them, Swift said.

The HQPP designation requires the program to hire certified teachers, and each has to have a teacher’s aid with at least an associate degree, Roush said. Those teachers and aids are Jonesboro School District employees. Classrooms can have a maximum of 20 students.

The first step to revitalizing this part of Jonesboro begins with the education level of its inhabitants, Swift said. Students have to be educated as early as possible to have the maximum impact, she said.

“We’ve got a lot of good things going on here … these kids are our economic future,” Swift said.