Alabama’s First Class Pre-K is the nation’s best pre-kindergarten program — again. Thirteen years in a row, so says the National Institute for Early Education Research. It’s an astounding feat. But if our state can do pre-K right, and do it right for so long, why is it so lacking in other crucial areas?
That’s astounding, too.
Since its inception in 2005, First Class has outperformed its expectations and increasingly enjoyed fiscal support from the state Legislature. That’s another astounding feat — Alabama lawmakers properly funding a program that makes a critical and positive difference. Quite frankly, we’re surprised by that. The Legislature’s history of government-on-the-cheap policies doesn’t breed confidence.
Nevertheless, success has followed the investment. In 2005-06, the program operated on $4.3 million. This school year, its funding has reached $96 million, and Gov. Kay Ivey wants a $27 million increase for First Class in the 2020 fiscal budget. Here, though, is the key: Increased funding allows more Alabama children to enroll in First Class — and that is critical, given that only 32 percent of eligible 4-year-olds (nearly 19,000) are enrolled in First Class this academic year.
“We wish more states followed Alabama’s example of expanding pre-K enrollment with adequate funding, high quality, and demonstrated effectiveness,” NIEER founder and senior co-director Steven Barnett told Alabama Political Reporter. “Research finds the program yields long-term gains in achievement. If the state continues to invest, all Alabama’s young children can benefit in the near future.”
Which leads us back to our overarching concern: Why isn’t Alabama enjoying similar success in areas such as K-12 public education, poverty reduction and statewide economic opportunities, not to mention its abysmal state prisons system? First Class proves what’s possible in Alabama instead of what’s unrealistic.
Money drives these discussions. So does political will. On that, First Class again provides the example. Alabama lawmakers — and the constituents who elect them — have the political will to spend taxpayer money on pre-K. Children matter, in all forms and fashions. For prisons and the inmates they house, not so much, especially for lawmakers who control the state’s checkbook. Only now that Alabama’s overcrowded, under-funded and hyper-violent prisons are in danger of federal intervention are lawmakers changing their tune.
Our version of Alabama recognizes two realities: New money is rare and progress is possible. Naive it would be to urge lawmakers to ignore budgetary concerns. Fiscal stewardship matters. But our frustration often rises when the Legislature overdoses on partisan matters with scant real-world impact and refuse to consider funding for programs like First Class that are golden in every conceivable way.
We wish Alabama could turn on a spigot and let the money flow. But it can’t. What it can do, however, is hold First Class up as confirmation that Alabama can be better, do better and perform better.