ForwARd Arkansas group says state needs $20 million investment to keep pre-K programs from falling behind

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 630 views 

Arkansas needs to invest $20 million in order to ensure the state’s pre-K programs don’t fall further behind, officials with a statewide education reform and advocacy group said on Wednesday.

And to accomplish that, Rep. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, told Talk Business & Politics that he has filed a shell bill to boost state spending for preschool programs across the state as the 91st General Assembly prepares to tackle budget and appropriations heading into the eighth week of the 2017 session.

“Most likely it is going to be an amendment to the public school fund,” Tucker said of the biennial budget request for the state’s educational needs. “I did file a bill for pre-K for $20 million just in case we needed to go that route.”

Tucker and House Majority Leader Rep. Mathew Pitsch, R-Fort Smith, joined about 40 other education advocates with the group ForwARd Arkansas at the Capitol rotunda to push state lawmakers to boost pre-K spending as budget appropriations bills begin to funnel their way through the legislative process.

Led by Susan Harriman, a former Arkansas Department of Education policy director, ForwARd Arkansas is a partnership of local education, business, government and civic leaders committed to improving public education in the state. Established as a partnership between ADE, the Walton Family Foundation and the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, the group released preliminary findings from a new report focusing on the consequences of flat pre-K funding since 2008.

Tucker said “the $20 million question” still remains on how the state would pay for such an increase, which is a huge boost over the $3 million set aside in the governor’s $5.5 billion biennial budget.

“We are obviously working on that and I think we are planning to use some existing money but we are not counting on Internet revenue totally or really any at all,” Tucker said. “What we are really looking at the (Education) Department’s budget and how to re-allocate some money that can be spent more wisely.”

That said, Democrats in the House have staged a standstill in that chamber’s Revenue and Tax Committee over how potentially hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent once the state begins collecting sales taxes from online retailers not located in Arkansas. Estimates from various groups, including the state Department of Finance and Administration, range from $30 million to $130 million. Online retail giant Amazon Inc. announced three weeks ago that it will begin collecting sales tax on March 1 on Arkansas online purchases, which are expected to boost state revenues from online sales significantly.

CHILDHOOD EDUCATION SPECIALIST SAYS INVEST NOW OR PAY LATER

Meanwhile, the ForwARd Arkansas press event was highlighted by a high-energy speech by Pam Toler, a regional coordinator of childhood services at Arkansas State University. Toler shared anecdotal stories of how high-quality preschool programs have benefitted children across the state.

“These children have confidence and they are self-assured and they are inquisitive,” Toler said as several preschool kids played at her feet. “That’s what high-quality (education) looks like.”

The ASU preschool specialist, who also oversees the Imagination Library of Saline County that provides free books every month to preschool children in the county up to age 5, brought applause from the crowd when she shared a story about a kindergarten class she observed where several preschoolers engaged in conflict resolution and other problem-solving behavior without adult intervention.

“Don’t you know some adults you know wish they had those same skills where they can calm themselves down and regulate and debate respectfully and say, ‘I value your opinion and I want to know what you have to say,’“ Toler said against the backdrop of several rancorous committee meetings.

Toler told lawmakers and others gathered at the event that although she was not a policymaker, she still understood Arkansas needs to invest in high-quality, masters-level teachers who can enhance pre-K classroom outcomes statewide.

“To be educated and trained, it costs money,” Toler said, adding that the state will get a $13 return for every dollar spent on pre-K education. “You are going to either pay now or you are going to pay later.”

After the 30-minute event ended, Kristin Nafziger, senior study director at U.S. research giant Westat, explained some of findings of the ForwARd Arkansas report. She said state investments have stagnated for nearly a decade and Arkansas pays pre-school teachers less than 75% of other U.S. states.

The report also makes recommendations on how the state should spend the additional $20 million in pre-K funding, if approved by the legislature. Among other things, $3 million would support teacher-child interactions and individualized instruction; $10 million would be spent on high need areas and development of “teacher pipeline” for non-degreed teacher assistants and highly-qualified professionals; and $6 million would go toward incentivizing teacher innovation, improving accountability and transferring “best practices” from successful program across the U.S. to preschool programs in Arkansas.

An additional $1 million would go toward improving data collection, research and analytics for use by lawmakers, state agencies policymakers and other preschool partners. To view the 60-page report, click here.

GOV. HUTCHINSON TO SIGN ARFUTURES HIGHER ED BILL TOMORROW

At the other end of the educational scale, Gov. Asa Hutchinson plans to sign his ArFutures higher education grant bill into law tomorrow (March 2) at the State Capitol. House Bill 1426 is the governor’s proposal to provide students with two years of tuition and fees at a qualifying Arkansas community college or technical school to any student who enrolls in a high-demand field of study.

Earlier in the session, Hutchinson signed a new higher education funding formula bill. It would make Arkansas the nation’s first to fund colleges and universities based entirely on productivity.

Before the session, Gov. Hutchinson said he would commit $10 million in additional funding for higher education in fiscal year 2019 – the first across-the-board funding increase for the state’s colleges and universities since 1996 and the first increase of any kind in six years.

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