Legislature Weighs Cuts to Pre-School Programs

A subcommittee in the legislature is looking to shave money from early education programs.

The group tasked with looking at the Department of Education and Early Development in the House rolled out their recommendations on Thursday, and their cuts to pre-school programs amount to $1 million. The reductions make up almost a fifth of the early education funding included in the governor’s budget.

The pre-kindergarten program saw the biggest cut, with its funding reduced by $480,000. The education subcommittee also made the program’s $2 million allocation a one-time amount, with the intention to reconsider program funding next year.

“That’s a pretty significant hit to pre-K programs,” says Michael Hanley, commissioner of Education and Early Development.

The program was created in 2009 as a pilot, and it serves 13 schools across the state. Most of those schools are in rural Alaska. Hanley says that the cut could shrink the program by 135 children and that at least one district’s pre-school program could close as a result.

Funding for Best Beginnings — a childhood literacy program — was brought down by $137,500. The Parents as Teachers program, which trains families to do pre-school activities at home, was reduced by $242,500. The subcommittee recommends both be funded at $800,000.

Rep. Tammie Wilson, a North Pole Republican, chairs the subcommittee. She says she supports early education, but doesn’t want the state to commit to paying for new programs with the state’s revenue projected to decline.

“As our oil keeps reducing, we’re getting to a point that we need to make some serious looks at everything in the budget. So, we took a close look at teaching and learning, which is the biggest portion of education, which has anything to do with pre-kindergarten programs,” says Wilson. “We didn’t go across the board for them, but there was quite a bit of new programs that the department asked for.”

Wilson has targeted the early education programs for cuts in past years, and attempted to cut the pre-K pilot program’s $2 million budget entirely in 2011. She has previously expressed concern that some of the state’s early education programs could be duplicative — especially with the federal Head Start program — and she cited redundancy as a reason for shrinking the pre-school budget.

But those programs have different objectives, says Education Commissioner Michael Hanley.

“That would sure be erroneous on our part if we actually were providing two services to one child, but I don’t know how you enroll a child in two pre-school programs at the same time,” says Hanley.

Another one of Wilson’s issues with the governor’s departmental budget was that the expansion of public pre-school could hurt private sector daycare programs.

“Should we also be competing with the ones that are completely private by starting new daycares and new pre-schools using state funding while other parents are having to pay for it,” says Wilson. “That’s where the discussion needs to be.”

Rep. Harriet Drummond, an Anchorage Democrat, opposes the cuts, and she introduced multiple amendments to keep the funding during the subcommittee’s closeout. She questions the idea that these early education programs are competing with the private sector.

“How’s that going to happen? You’re talking about some pretty remote places here, that don’t have cash economies, don’t have a tax base to ask their taxpayers for more money to fund these programs” says Drummond. “I don’t know where this funding is supposed to come from.”

Drummond also argues that the funding early education programs saves the state money in the long run in remedial education and public safety costs.

Hanley says that Alaska’s pre-school program has performed particularly well. Of the students who were enrolled in the program in 2011 and 2012, 80 percent of them exceeded expectations for vocabulary development and showed anywhere from one month to two year’s extra growth from the time they were first assessed. The department’s three-year report on the program also showed substantial improvement in motor skills and concept development.

“Our pre-K programs have some of the highest results in the country,” says Hanley. “But when it comes to access, we have some of the lowest access rates in the country. Fewer kids have access to pre-K than almost every other state. So, that’s a challenge we have, and we exacerbate that especially when we see cuts.”

The subcommittee recommendations will now be reviewed by House finance. Hanley says that the Department of Education and Early Development will push for the funding to be restored.

In total, the House education and early development trimmed the governor’s departmental budget by 1.6 percent, or $5.7 million.