How Alabama Used a “Business Plan” to Grow State Investments in Pre-K

This spring, state lawmakers approved an $18.5 million expansion of Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program.

This was the sixth year in a row that lawmakers have substantially increased appropriations for the program, and the highest single-year increase to-date.

Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program was started in 2000. Since then, four consecutive governors have prioritized funding to support the state’s voluntary pre-k initiative, helping make it the highest-quality state-funded pre-kindergarten program in the country.

However, it was not until advocates began thinking like business leaders that state lawmakers stated bringing the program to scale.

My organization, the Alabama School Readiness Alliance - a joint campaign of A+ Education Partnership, Alabama Giving, Alabama Partnership for Children and VOICES for Alabama's Children - began advocating for the expansion the state program when First Class was still in its infancy. In our early years, ASRA’s public awareness and advocacy efforts helped grow state investments in the First Class Pre-K program from $4 million in 2006 to $19 million in 2012. However, this amount was only enough to reach just six percent of Alabama’s four-year-olds.

The jumpstart we needed to bring Alabama’s successful pre-k program to scale came from business advocates in our coalition who began asking, “What would it cost to fully fund First Class Pre-K?”

This led the Business Council of Alabama to help fund a cost study by the National Institute for Early Education Research that estimated that Alabama would need to increase state appropriations to a level of $144 million for the First Class program to reach 70 percent of all four-year-olds, the estimated take-up rate for voluntary “pre-k for all” in our state.

Armed with the study, ASRA brought together a Pre-K Task Force made up of 40 leaders from the business, education, medical, legal, philanthropic, military and child advocacy communities to turn NIEER’s research into action. In 2012, the Task Force released its recommendations, a decade-long “business plan” for expanding Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program to reach all families that wish to enroll their children on a voluntary basis.

In the past six years, lawmakers have grown the annual level of state investment in Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program from $19 million to $96 million (this includes the $18.5 million increase approved by the Legislature in March 2018). As a result, access has expanded from six percent to a projected 32 percent of four-year olds in the upcoming school year.

Thanks to our Pre-K Task Force’s “business plan” for pre-k expansion, we can proudly say that the state of Alabama is on track to fully fund First Class Pre-K in the next four years, and we are already seeing dividends from our investments.

A new analysis by two of our state’s top research institutions finds that low-income Alabama First Class Pre-K graduates have significantly higher reading and math proficiency rates in the third and sixth grades, compared with their peers who did not attend the program.

The study also found that First Class Pre-K is making deep dents in the stubborn academic achievement gap that has historically persisted between Alabama’s low-income children and their higher-income peers. For those that participated, First Class Pre-K closed the third grade reading proficiency gap by 28 percent for children in poverty. In math proficiency, it closed the gap by 57 percent.

Just think of the possibilities for Alabama students once all children in the state can attend.

-Allison Muhlendorf, Executive Director
Alabama School Readiness Alliance

(June 1, 2018)