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What it's going to take to improve Arkansas

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If Arkansas lawmakers don't start making decisions based on what's best for the future of the state's children, then that future won't be very bright. If the decisions our officials make continue to favor the wealthy of today rather than the workforce of tomorrow, Arkansas will continue to fall near the bottom when it comes to third-grade reading, graduation rates, college attendance and other indicators that, when good, make Arkansas a better place to build businesses, families and lives.

So what's it going to take to bring Arkansas up in the education rankings? We'll have to prioritize our spending and invest in programs we know will work. The track record of pre-K in improving the lives of young people is so well-documented that leaving it with no extra funding in the state budget year after year seems almost criminal at this point. But that's what continues to happen.

The Arkansas Better Chance prekindergarten program has not seen one dime of extra funding in seven years. It remains stuck at $111 million per year. Meanwhile, thousands of eligible kids go unserved and some facilities are forced to close their doors. There is nothing better than pre-K to help all children prepare for school or to help low-income children close the learning gap that keeps them from doing as well as their more affluent peers. Nothing. This isn't wishful thinking, it's something we know. Study after study has shown the benefits of pre-K. Starting off in pre-K helps kids do better in reading and math in the third and eighth grades. It improves chances of high school graduation and lowers the likelihood that a child will end up in the juvenile justice system.

No action was taken to give more funding to pre-K during the 2013 legislative session. In the most recent 2014 fiscal session, Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) and Uvalde Lindsey (D-Fayetteville) proposed an amendment that would have boosted funding by $7 million, which was negotiated down to $2 million, which then failed in committee (although lawmakers on both sides of the aisle voted yes, it wasn't enough).   

So why wouldn't we direct more resources to such an important, effective, proven solution to our state's educational woes? Why wouldn't we choose to spend a little bit more on a program we know would help keep "Thank God for Mississippi" off the tongues of our fellow Arkansans? The answer is clear: tax cuts.

In 2013, Arkansas lawmakers decided to let the wealthiest Arkansans off the hook for millions of dollars. The annual cost of the tax cuts passed in 2013 will be $160 million in 2016. Compare tax cuts of $160 million to spending $7 million (or for argument's sake, take the $2 million). Those are budgeting decisions that have been made. Who benefits? It's not pre-K kids. It's not your everyday Arkansan. It isn't our collective future.

So what's it going to take to better educate our kids? To graduate more students? To attract more businesses? It's going to take investments that work.

It won't be easy. It will draw backlash from those who think spending money on anything is anathema. It will require leadership and backbone. It will take politicians who are willing to stick their necks out for kids whose allowances won't come close to funding their PACs or their reelection campaigns. It's going to take support from parents who would jump at the chance to have an affordable place they can send their kids while they head off to work, not to mention a place where they can learn and get a head start.

It will take constituents who see through it when office-seekers say, "I support pre-K, but we can't afford new funding for it." It's going to take all of us realizing that the early education of our children is not some political football but the linchpin to Arkansas's future success.  

 

Rich Huddleston is the executive director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. Max Brantley is on vacation.

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