With enrollment totaling around 900, OSR preschools serve just 1.5 percent of the state's 4-year-olds. Calhoun County, the 10th-largest county in Alabama, doesn't have a program through the readiness office.
Pre-Kindergarten programs are acclaimed for delivering better-prepared children to schools. Some states have clamored to fund them. Florida recently invested $400 million to create universal pre-K. In Georgia, a lottery annually yields the $270 million to fund pre-K for all.
Alabama was once part of that wave, but the current $3.3 million budget of the Office of School Readiness barely stretches to 50 pre-K classrooms. When a lottery initiative failed in 1999, pre-K champion Gov. Don Siegelman cobbled together foundation and federal grants.
"Governor Siegelman was a forefront leader for pre-K in our state, so he made sure it was funded well," said OSR Acting Director Melissa Partin. "Governor Riley hasn't put as much emphasis on pre-K. When the administration changed, our funding decreased dramatically."
A representative from Riley's office said a conditional appropriation of just over $1 million for OSR is in the fiscal 2006 budget, subject to money being available.
Meanwhile, competition for OSR funding is keen, because there is only so much money to work with. Last year, OSR accepted less than one-third of the programs that applied, Partin said.
"If we've got 50 spots, we can only fund the best 50," she said.
Partin said the OSR sends information cards to every eligible applicant. But several pre-K programs in Calhoun County contacted by The Anniston Star said they did not recall receiving any.
Last year, Partin said, more than 900 cards came back requesting applications, but only 167 providers actually applied.
An OSR preschool can be hosted just about anywhere - public schools, Head Start centers, universities, even churches - as long as providers fulfill guidelines that go into such detail as specifying a minimum number of puzzles. They can charge up to $25 per week.
Partin said some providers are unable or unwilling to meet OSR standards - for example, paying a qualified teacher a salary on the matrix set for an Alabama public school teacher. Some schools have passed up a grant after accepting because they cannot afford it.
In Calhoun County, the presence of state-funded pre-K was fleeting. Wellborn Elementary School scrambled to create a program after receiving word late in the summer of 2001 that it would be funded. But a year later, OSR declined to renew the grant.
By then, parents were calling Wellborn in droves to enroll their kids, only to be told the program had been shut down.
"There's a definite need for it in Calhoun County," Principal Doug O'Dell said "We have a lot of kindergartners who come in to school not prepared for the routines and structure of it."
When OSR money runs dry, it affects the number of preschools funded and the amount they get, which already has been cut from $75,000 to $60,000 and requires matching funds.
As the state tightens the purse strings, some pre-Ks have dipped into their own funds to keep the program going. The three-year-old OSR pre-K at Pleasant Grove Elementary School in Heflin has been helped by the local school board.
"The $60,000 doesn't even cover the requirements OSR has for personnel," said Principal Adam Dasinger, who hired a less-experienced teacher because the previous one was too expensive.
Despite the strain, Dasinger has no regrets about taking on an OSR preschool.
"If I knew four years ago that we'd have to go through this, I would still do it," he said. "I'd do it in a heartbeat."
His son graduated from the program. "I was most impressed. They learn without knowing they're learning. It's not a paper and pencil class - you're learning skills through play."
In Sylacauga each year, about 100 4-year-olds vie for 18 spots in one of the OSR's pilot programs.
"Public schools are pressuring kindergarten students to achieve so many things that the social development aspect of that year is slowly going away," said Kay Jennings, whose organization oversees the Sylacauga program and another in Goodwater. "So preschool has become even more important."
She said private preschool programs are rarely of OSR caliber. "There's a lot of programs out there that are sitting children in front of TVs or that have rote learning," Jennings said.
An OSR site in Lineville closed in 2003, Jennings said, in part because word had gotten out that it was about to have its funding cut and possibly would close. Unwilling to give up scarce spots in alternate childcare options for a program that might have no future, parents stayed away. And without the OSR quota of 18 students, the Lineville pre-K closed after six weeks.
"Until our state representatives and legislators fund us better, then we're living from year-to-year, and this is a program that really shouldn't be operated that way," Jennings said.