By WILL WHATLEY, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program was named the country’s highest quality state pre-kindergarten program for the 14th year in a row, Gov. Kay Ivey announced on Wednesday.
“Alabama First Class Pre-K is once again proving to be successful in providing a solid foundation for our youngest learners to be successful in school and life,” Ivey said in a prepared statement. “From our state’s historic investment in pre-K to (Secretary of Early Childhood Education) Jeana Ross’s unmatched leadership, Alabama is setting the standard for excellence in early childhood education around the country. We can all be proud that Alabama continues to lead the nation in high-quality early childhood education.”
The annual rankings are done by the National Institute for Early Education Research.
The Alabama First Class Pre-K program received its largest-ever single year funding increase recommended by Ivey and approved by the Alabama Legislature in 2019, which expanded access to more than 38% of 4 year olds in the state while meeting all 10 NIEER quality standards benchmarks in the 2019-2020 school year.
“Alabama continues to lead the nation in high quality pre-K” said NIEER founder and senior co-director Steven Barnett. “The state has been committed to expanding access and must continue to invest more resources and expand access so more children benefit from this quality program.”
Investing in a high quality pre-K program has both short- and long-term benefits, Ross said.
”Research indicates that children that participate in Alabama First Class Pre-K are more likely to be proficient in reading and math, and are less likely to need special education, to be retained in school, to be chronically absent, as well as significantly fewer student discipline issues throughout their middle and high school careers,” she said. “The achievement gap closures we see among First Class Pre-K participants in reading and math persist through the third and eighth grades, and into high school.”
Economists have determined that for every dollar invested in early childhood education, there is at least a $7 return, Ross said. Children who attend a high-quality pre-K also have lower teenage pregnancy and lower incarceration rates, are more likely to graduate from high school, go onto college or have a job, and have higher rates of home ownership.
“Alabama’s investment in First Class Pre-K is important for greater student success throughout their entire academic career, building a stronger economy and developing our workforce. Investing in our children’s future begins now,” Ross added.
One thing the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education, which administers the First Class Pre-K program, requires is all First Class Pre-K lead teachers have a bachelor’s degree, at a minimum, and provides salary parity with K-3 teachers.
Ross said that in every First Class Pre-K classroom across the state, there are two credentialed, highly-qualified teachers. Each lead teacher holds at a minimum a four-year degree in early childhood education, and each auxiliary teacher has specialized training in child development. Additionally, more than one-third of Alabama’s pre-k teachers hold a master’s degree or higher.
The Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education began providing pre-K teacher pay parity in 2015, and has sustained every single teacher pay raise since then, Ross said. More than 2,400 pre-K teachers are employed in First Class Pre-K classrooms in all 67 counties.
“Teachers are a strong direct determinant of pre-K program quality,” she said. “Highly qualified, responsive and sensitive teachers are the most important factor in successful child outcomes. Pay parity ensures a credentialed, specialized early childhood education professional is in the classroom to provide developmentally appropriate early learning experiences.”