Last week, Alabama finished in a first-place tie with North Carolina in a national ranking of states' pre-kindergarten programs. That's four consecutive years in which these Southern states have received high ranking from the National Institute for Early Education Research.
Problem is, "First Class: Alabama's Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten Program" — the program's wordy moniker — is bogged down in the same fiscal morass that's affecting countless other worthwhile state programs.
The basic reason is obvious: Still reeling from the Great Recession, Alabama's state government has been forced to make innumerable cost-cutting decisions in recent years. Federal stimulus money from Washington has lessened the depth of some of those cuts, but they've remained bone-deep in many cases.
Next year, however, Gov. Bob Riley's successor and the state Legislature will have to craft budgets that do not include another infusion of federal assistance. It's a scary thought. Keeping the lights on will be difficult enough. Paying for efforts such as a heralded pre-K program that carries immense educational value could nevertheless end up on the cutting-room floor.
To his credit, Riley has pushed hard for an expansion of the state's pre-K program. Initially, the governor's office had expected to expand the program's funding to $30 million by 2011 to expose more eligible children to this project. Given the depths of the Great Recession, it's remarkable that Goat Hill has been able to expand the program's funding to more than $18 million for the upcoming fiscal year.
But the program still isn't funded to the governor's desires, and it still reaches less than 7 percent of eligible 4-year-olds in Alabama — a crying shame for a state whose public education still needs vast improvements. The program's quality exists; the funding for expansion does not.
The hope here is that the budget distress that will envelope Montgomery during its 2011 session will not reduce First Class funding. That would be a mistake. In reality, it's likely too optimistic to expect the Legislature to throw additional millions toward that program, even with its lofty ranking and educational successes. The state's financial situation simply may forbid it.
The real issue is that the next incarnation of state government will include a first-year governor for the first time in eight years. It'll also face one of the most profoundly difficult budget-writing assignments in the state's recent memory.
Alabama's pre-K program provides a quintessential illustration of the problem: How will the state prioritize its needs? How will the state sustain educational progress? And how will the state pay for meaningful programs?
Alabama's next governor and the state Legislature face Herculean budgeting tasks. Hope they're up to them.