A group of statewide education constituents are tackling issues such as crime, welfare dependence and economic development in an unlikely place -- the pre-kindergarten classroom.
Members of the Alabama School Readiness Alliance (ASRA) Pre-K Task Force met Thursday with legislators at pre-kindergarten centers in Montgomery, Birmingham, Huntsville and Mobile to discuss how early childhood education yields positive results for the entire community and to request formally more funding for program expansion across the state.
The ASRA task force includes educators, business leaders, philanthropists, children's advocates, and representatives from the military, medical and legal fields. The 38-member statewide group's mission is to identify short- and long-term strategies to increase funding and program access to all Alabamians.
Among other recommendations, the alliance requested that legislators increase state funding by $125 million during a 10-year period, with annual increases of $12.5 million. For fiscal year 2014, that means going from $19,087,050 to $31,587,050.
The local event Thursday was held at the McKee Pre-K Center, where legislators voiced their support for the funding increase.
"Our children are our most precious resource, so you have my wholehearted support to work to find ways that we can continue and give every child the access to a pre-K education in the state of Alabama," said state Sen. Quinton Ross, D-Montgomery.
Ross was joined by state Rep. Joe Hubbard, D-Montgomery, and Rep. Jay Love, R-Montgomery, who is the chairman of the House Ways and Means Education Committee.
Love said although he couldn't speak for the governor or other legislators, he is dedicated to doing everything possible to make sure the program grows.
"I don't anticipate any reason why we wouldn't be able to meet that funding goal," he said. "I anticipate that challenge this year absolutely being made and my commitment is to work as hard as we can to make sure that funding level is reached."
Hubbard added that investing in pre-kindergarten will yield a sure return.
"The capital we need for economic development in this state is right here in this building -- it's human capital," he said. "And that human capital is where we need to be focusing our attention."
At McKee, legislators got to see what funding can do when they visited classes and read to students.
The local district has used federal and grant funds in recent years to expand the pre-kindergarten program, according to Montgomery Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Thompson. The district now has 22 pre-K classrooms at 10 sites, but she said much more is needed.
The state-funded pre-K program is only available to 6 percent of Alabama's 4-year-olds, according to a news release from the alliance.
"Our high-quality, voluntary pre-K program has been a source of pride in our state for years, but the number of kids who have access to this proven program is embarrassingly low," Mike Luce, co-chair of the ASRA task force said in the release. "We are offering a common sense plan to lawmakers that will save the state millions of dollars by reducing the need for remedial and special education, welfare, and social and criminal justice services."
To learn more about the campaign, visit alabamaschoolreadiness.org.