By PHILLIP RAWLS
The governor has added his voice to business and education leaders calling for an expansion of Alabama’s small pre-kindergarten program for 4-year-olds.
“If we are going to improve the lives of people of this state, I believe we need to do everything that we can in pre-K education,” Gov. Robert Bentley said.
He said pre-K education is especially helpful to children who haven’t been read to regularly by their parents, and it gets them ready to learn in kindergarten.
“I think pre-K education, to be honest with you, is more important than the Reading Initiative,” the Republican governor told the Birmingham Business Alliance on Tuesday.
The Alabama Reading Initiative operates in elementary schools statewide and is credited with helping improve children’s reading scores.
Alabama began a voluntary pre-K program in the 2000-2001 school year. It is operated through the governor’s Office of School Readiness rather than the state Department of Education, and it has received $19.1 million in state funding for each of the last two years.
The voluntary program serves 3,900 children, or about 6 percent of Alabama’s 4-year-olds. They attend classes in 217 public, private and faith-based pre-K classrooms.
The National Institute for Early Education Research has ranked Alabama’s program among the best in quality and worst in accessibility because of its small size.
A coalition of business leaders, children’s advocates, educators and others are working through the Alabama School Readiness Alliance to try to persuade the Legislature to add $12.5 million a year for 10 years to make the program available to all 4-year-olds.
The State Board of Education has recommended a $5 million increase for the 2013-2014 school year. State Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice called it “a stake in the ground.”
Bentley said he would like to put more money into the program next year, but he isn’t saying how much he will recommend to the Legislature when it convenes in February to write the budget for the 2013-2014 school year.
The chairman of the state Senate’s education budget committee, Republican Trip Pittman of Montrose, said Wednesday, “The voluntary pre-K program has shown a lot of value and deserves additional funding in the long run.”
He said state officials are looking to see if there is money that can be shifted from other programs to pre-K funding next year and also making sure the money will be available in future years. He called both a $5 million and a $12.5 million increase reasonable. But he said, “From a budget chairman’s standpoint, $5 million is more likely than $12 million.”
Both Pittman and Bentley said they want the program to remain voluntary. “We don’t want to force any parent to send their children to pre-K if they don’t want to,” Bentley said.