Northwest Arkansas' Endeavor Foundation announced almost $5 million in grants for a preschool program amid calls for more state support of early childhood education.
The charitable foundation committed $4 million to expand Arkansas Better Chance, the state's education preschool program, to 240 more students by paying for renovations and classroom tools and materials, according to a news release Thursday. Another $800,000 will support 280 students already in the program.
By The Numbers
Arkansas Better Chance
• Budget: $111 million
• Eligibility: Kids between 3 and 5 whose family makes up to 200 percent of the federal poverty line
• Eligible Children in Arkansas: 46,300
• Children Participating: 17,600 (38 percent)
• Eligible Children in Benton and Washington Counties: 7,400
• Children Participating in Benton and Washington Counties: 2,100 (28 percent)
Source: Staff Report
"State funding for Pre-K has remained flat since 2008, meaning that unless private dollars are invested, the increasing demand for Pre-K will not be met, and we will continue to fail our children at a time in their lives when learning is a critical determinant of future success," Anita Scism, president and CEO of the foundation, said in the release.
Arkansas Better Chance provides early education in math, art, reading and other subjects for preschoolers whose families make up to 200 percent of the federal poverty line, or $47,700 for a family of four. Taking part in Arkansas' program significantly improves kids' performance in all subjects, according to a Rutgers University study of the program in 2007.
The program serves about 18,000 children across the state, including 2,100 in Washington and Benton counties, according to a legislative study on the topic in October. The number of kids who'd qualify for the program is three to four times the number of participants, the study found. The program's budget of $111 million hasn't increased since 2008.
The Endeavor grants will go to Northwest Arkansas school districts during the next three school years, said Justin Fletcher, the foundation's vice president of programs and development. The grants are in addition to about $3 million given for the current school year, he said. Which districts will get the money will be announced early next year.
"The only way new programs are created (in Arkansas Better Chance) is if another program folds," Fletcher said, pointing to the program's unchanged budget. "We wanted to do something about that."
Endeavor Foundation's commitments come during intensified focus nationwide on prekindergarten education as a tool that can shape children's lives for the better. President Obama pushed for expanding it during his last two State of the Union addresses. The U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services announced last week they would give Arkansas a Preschool Development Grant of $60 million spread over the next four years.
"If you fall behind early, it's tough to catch up," said Laura Kellams, Northwest Arkansas director for Arkansas Advocates of Family and Children. "We definitely are so enthusiastic that Endeavor wants to invest in early childhood education."
Kids with preschool education are more likely to be reading in third grade, to graduate high school, to stay out of the justice system and to graduate college, she said. Kids without preschool education slide in the other direction.
"It's critical in Northwest Arkansas in particular because we have a growing number of kids who are growing up in families with low incomes, and we haven't been able to keep up," Kellams said, pointing to a growing Hispanic population that tends to have lower incomes. "It's not just for these kids who are behind the first day in kindergarten. All the children in the classroom benefit if more kids are ready the first day."
Kellam's organization is part of a group of advocates and legislators who have pushed for an increase in Arkansas Better Chance's budget. A state Senate panel last month rejected a proposal to boost the budget to at least $125 million to make up for cost-of-living jumps in the past six years, according to the Arkansas News Bureau.
Mike Ross, the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for governor, said he would push for enough money to make Arkansas Better Chance available to every eligible child, Arkansas News reported in April. Republican Gov.-elect Asa Hutchinson called the idea "overpromising in an election year" at the time.
Hutchinson has yet to release a proposed budget for the incoming legislative session. Duncan Baird, a Lowell state representative and Hutchinson's budget director come January, didn't return a phone call Thursday afternoon requesting comment.NW News on 12/19/2014