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Alaska Launches Competitive Grant Program to Expand and Improve Existing Pre-K Programs

Alaska leaned in to state-funded preschool this year, with Governor Mike Dunleavy signing into law the Alaska Reads Act in June. The new law includes a small competitive grant program to develop pre-K programs in districts where none exist, or to expand and improve existing pre-K programs. Trevor Storrs, President & CEO, and Brooke Ivy, VP of Policy & Advocacy, at Alliance ally the Alaska Children’s Trust helped us understand the context around the new legislation and what the new preschool resources might mean for Alaska’s young children and families.

Alaska does not currently have a statewide, state-funded pre-K program. However, these competitive grant dollars are not the first state funding for preschool in the state. Pre-K grants have been previously issued by the state on a limited basis, though by 2020-21, they were only being offered in about a third of the state’s school districts.

This new investment is designed to provide resources to school districts that are not adequately served by Head Start and other high-quality childcare. School districts with the lowest performance will be prioritized in the grant selection process, and they will be eligible for three-year grants, with an option of a continuation year. Up to $3 million will be awarded to districts in year one, and amounts can increase by up to $3 million per year, with a sunset currently scheduled for ten years out. The goal is for the program to build over time.

The legislation will allow school districts, if they complete the three-year grant process, to begin to count four-year-old children enrolled in pre-K programs as part of the districts’ average daily membership, which determines overall annual state funding. Total additional funding cannot exceed $3 million dollars per school district per year.

“Only one third of Alaska’s children are showing up ready for kindergarten, and only 31 percent of three- and four-year-olds are served by districts that provide a pre-K program,” said Storrs. “This legislation is the starting line to changing these statistics, but a lot more work is needed.”

Trevor Storrs, President & CEO
Alaska Children’s Trust

Storrs shared that this legislation did not pass without some concerns specific to rural communities and equity that still need to be addressed before implementation. It will be important that implementation ensures Head Start programs are not negatively impacted by establishing new pre-K programs in smaller communities where there may not be enough children to meet enrollment requirements. Also, it needs to ensure high quality child care programs are considered within their framework of funding. Finally, within the reading component of the bill, the role of Alaska Native languages and immersion programs are integrated into the framework.

The Alaska Reads Act also provides funds for Parents at Teachers for eligible preschool-aged children and their families, and puts in place additional early literacy supports in kindergarten through third grade:  a statewide reading screening tool, a district-level reading intervention services program with evidence-based reading interventions, a process for making decisions about whether students will be promoted or retained, coaching/mentoring for school leadership and staff in the lowest performing 25 percent of schools by reading specialists, and more virtual education and professional development resources for students and teachers.

For more information about the early literacy portions of the new Alaska Reads Act, visit the Alaska Department of Education. Allies are also welcome to reach out to Brooke Ivy at Alaska Children’s Trust.

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