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Alabama generally ranks near the bottom on most education indicators, but has a preschool program that meets all benchmarks, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.
Despite this success, state officials have been cautious in their efforts to expand the program to all of the state’s youngest students.

State authorities have focused on maintaining the quality of the program over the years, meaning the state has not made expansion as high a priority as other states. While the program has grown, it is not yet widely available, which authorities say is partly due to a lack of staff and facilities.

Experts say political will and funding are the final prerequisites for introducing universal preschool education in Alabama.

However, the person in charge of the state program says the ministry is considering whether universal preschool education is still the goal.

“Do so many parents want their child to attend a public preschool program?” Hume said.

Quality and reach

Alabama’s preschool program consistently meets all benchmarks set by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). And an expansion has been under debate for a long time. Former Alabama Governor Bob Riley placed emphasis on preschool education during his second term. He joined many other governors who believed in the potential of pre-school education to improve students’ long-term achievement – a great return on investment.

In 2008, funding for preschool education was expanded. while the overall education budget shrank. But the program was still tiny: This year, about 5.5% of eligible four-year-olds participated.

Today, preschool education in Alabama has grown, but is still not enough for universal provision. According to NIEER, about 39% of 4-year-olds were cared for in the 2022-23 school year. A map of child care deserts from the Center for American Progress published 2018 shows that the state lacks many deficiencies.

Universal preschool education does not mean that 100% of all 4-year-olds participate in a program. According to NIEER, universal preschool education is achieved at 70% of the current rate. Allison Friedman-Krauss, associate research professor at NIEER, wrote in an email that 70% is considered universal because some parents don’t opt ​​in and about 7% of 4-year-olds are enrolled in the federal Project Head Start program. The number of 4-year-olds in the state is also declining.

But that vision could change in Alabama, says Jan Hume, acting secretary of early childhood education.

“I think it might be closer to 60%,” Hume said. “Who knows? I just think things have changed. So we’re really starting at 70%. Is that really still the goal?”

The department has not requested a large increase in funding this year and is pursuing “strategic growth,” she said. Hume said the state is also reviewing whether universal preschool education is still the state’s goal.

But the state has met NIEER benchmarks. Among other things, the organization requires that the standards for preschool children “comprehensive, coordinated, supported, culturally sensitive.” Teachers must specialize in preschool children and have at least a bachelor’s degree. Class sizes should be a maximum of 20, with a staff-to-child ratio of 1 to 10 or better.

Alabama has trouble retaining and attracting teachers at all grade levels, and experts say that’s no different in the preschool sector. School systems have said the state isn’t paying enough for local preschool teachers’ salaries, said Jan Hume, the assistant secretary for early childhood education who manages the state’s preschool program. Hume said they are currently reviewing their grant structure to see what works.

Hume said she dreams of speaking to more guidance counselors about early childhood education opportunities. She said while these have historically been low-paying positions, the ministry requires that state preschool teachers be paid the same as other teachers.

In their view, there is a trade-off between funding the workforce while staying within budget in terms of spending and avoiding passing the costs on to parents.

In addition to staffing and finances, space is one of the limiting factors for expansion that experts and the department cite. Equipment is a problem in adding more classrooms, Hume said, especially in fast-growing areas like Shelby County.

“We run into an interesting problem in some places that are growing so quickly, and that is, ‘Where can we put a preschool?'” she said.

Senate Finance and Taxation Committee Education Appropriations Chairman Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) said in a recent phone interview that facilities were one of the reasons he also heard against expansion.

“As far as I know, in recent years the Department of Early Childhood Education has not been able to use all the resources available to it to establish additional preschool classes,” he said.

NIEER experts estimated that an additional $175 million to $200 million would likely be needed to fund universal preschool education in the state.

“Total spending on preschool in Alabama in 2022-2023 was $254.5 million (of which $173.7 million was state funding and $80.7 million was local funding),” Friedman-Krauss said. “To achieve universal primary coverage, the state would need to roughly double funding.”

Steve Barnett, senior co-director and founder of NIEER, said expansion is possible.

“If Alabama doesn’t get it done in 10 years, it will be because there wasn’t enough money to act so quickly – not because it wasn’t possible,” he said.

There is no lack of political will, said Orr.

“I know that there has been a conscientious decision in the past to increase funding for pre-school education as much as possible,” he said.

Is general preschool education the goal?

The fiscal year 2025 budget allocates nearly $201 million to the Department of Early Childhood, an increase of more than $6 million (3.2%) over the previous year.

Amanda Samford, spokeswoman for the Department of Early Childhood Education, explained in an email that the portion of the budget that goes to classrooms breaks down roughly as follows: 73% for instruction (teacher salary and benefits); 11% for instructional support; 10% for operations and maintenance; 3% for instructional equipment; and 3% for administration. Instructional support services include substitute teachers and teaching assistants.

In fact, about 20 classes did not reapply, she said. “We have attrition every year because programs either get discontinued or maybe they didn’t meet the requirements and they kind of dropped out,” she said. “Or maybe they didn’t have enough enrollment, you know, the population numbers shifted.”

According to Alabama First Class Pre-k Classroom guidelines, The Office of School Readiness within ADECE manages the program and works with classrooms to ensure quality preschool education. If a year passes in a funding cycle without a teacher showing satisfactory progress, the program may be canceled unless the teacher is replaced.

The preschool program is attended by about 27,000 children, Hume said, adding that student enrollment is voluntary and that numbers have declined in recent years.

“This year we have made a big effort to really get the message out and raise awareness among parents,” she said.

This initiative included billboards and gathering feedback from parents on which zip codes the program should be expanded to.

The Alabama School Readiness Alliance is tracking the expansion of preschool education. The program grew by at least a hundred classrooms year-over-year from 2013-14 to 2019-20. From 2021-22 to 2022-23, the increase was about 70 classrooms.

Cordelia Simmons, a lead teacher at Faulkner, said she wishes more parents would take advantage of the First Class Pre-K program.

“I wish the negative thoughts about preschool would change and people would think that it is not a first-class educational institution for preschool education,” she said.

You don’t have to go to a private school to have a great preschool experience, she said.

“This is a free program and I wish more people would respect it,” she said.

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