JUNEAU —The Alaska pre-kindergarten program, which helps kids who are at or below the poverty level learn the skills to be ready for kindergarten, has seen year-after-year improvements, but its funding outlook is uncertain.
The head of the state’s early learning programs told the House education budget subcommittee Monday night that the program is seeing improving results each year, but committee members said they need more information before they can make a decision on its budget.
“We’re seeing marked improvement. We’re seeing a lot of kids leaving the bottom quartile and moving up through the quartiles,” Paul Sugar told the House education budget committee. “We haven’t reached our goal, but we’re seeing significant improvement every year.”
Sugar’s presentation showed that in the past four years, each group of children typically has increased in proficiency in motor skills, vocabulary and classroom behavior with a large percentage — about 70 percent — learning more than would be expected during their time in the program.
The program was launched in 2009 as a pilot and became an official state-overseen program more recently. In the most recently completed fiscal year, the program served 345 students across eight school districts. The Fairbanks North Star Borough School District is not one of the participating districts.
The program, however, hasn’t seen a friendly response from the House education budget subcommittee in the past. In 2011, the subcommittee tried to ax it altogether before it was reinstated later.
Last year, the committee chaired by Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, opted to cut half a million dollars from the proposed $2.5 million budget. Those cuts stuck.
This year, Gov. Sean Parnell put forward a budget that proposes maintaining the $2 million pre-K budget approved by the Legislature last year.
Now, with declining revenues and leadership’s mandate for each subcommittee to find cuts, the outlook of early education is unclear.
Wilson, speaking on Tuesday, said she wants more information on the project before committing to any funding changes.
“We need data to show if this is the correct way to do it. What is working and what has the best bang for the buck,” she said.
Of the requested information, Wilson said she wants to know what sort of partnerships the programs are making with other groups. Sugar said in response to last year’s cuts, some programs partnered, often with Headstart programs, with other groups to maintain services and teachers, while others ended up reducing the number of students served.
Wilson said she would like to see the pre-K programs partnering more often with private pre-K programs to reach students who narrowly fall above the poverty line.
Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, sits on the subcommittee and said he would like to see the program expanded but believes there is no motivation on the committee to expand the program, even if it’s shown to be successful.
“Given that members of the subcommittee were talking about burning the house down and wondering why this department exists, I’m not hopeful for any budget increases,” he said. “Even though the evidence is very clear that these programs are working, they’ll stick with the governor’s proposal and they’re certainly not going to expand it.”
Josephson said he has hope that the Senate might boost the budget or reinstate any cuts that might be coming.
When asked if she would be putting forward a recommendation to increase, maintain or cut the pre-K program’s budget, Wilson said she sees that the program has value but stuck to her position that she needs more information before deciding on a proposal to bring to the committee.
“The first thing is determining what is the responsibility of the state, and after that, we will judge the merits of these other programs,” she said. “We are prioritizing and it’s about making sure we take care of the things the state needs to do first.”
The House Finance Subcommittee on the Department of Early Education and Development will put forward its budget recommendations on Monday evening. The committee is scheduled to meet again this Thursday to discuss the governor’s digital teaching initiative, which it also cut last year.
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.