Education advocates have long promoted pre-school as a way of closing the achievement gap between rich and poor students, and this year the president named expanding early education programs as one of his top priorities in his State of the Union address. But here in Alaska, fewer kids could end up having access to pre-school due to budget cuts.
Students are trickling into Ms. Deana Wanner’s classroom at the Gastineau Community School. The kids take off their jackets, and then sit down at tables with paper and markers. Today, the focus is dinosaurs.
The four-year-olds are part of a small and relatively new state-managed pre-kindergarten program. It was created in 2009, and it uses certified teachers to serve kids who are at or below the poverty level. The goal is to sharpen their motor skills, pump up their vocabulary, and get them used to being in a classroom. So, when kindergarten comes, they’ll basically be ready.
At Gastineau, the program works as a partnership with Head Start. Deana Wanner makes up half of the teaching team.
“I like having the relationship with the family to come in and make sure they’re making the progress to help their child come to school on a regular basis. Because some of those families need that extra support, and that’s where we come in.”
At pre-school, the kids learn more than just how to count. It’s a stable environment for them to socialize, get basic life skills, and receive adult supervision.
These aren’t kids whose parents can afford fancy private pre-school programs. When one student gets dropped off, the dad alerts Wanner that a family member had been hospitalized and that the kid could need extra attention as a result. At recess, Wanner consults with support staff about a different family that needs help getting their kid on something as basic as a bathing schedule.
Teachers mix little lessons on nutrition and hygiene in with the academic stuff. Before the students eat their snacks, Wanner sneaks in a lesson on how to say the ABCs and wash your hands at the same time.
A ten-minute drive away at the state capitol, Wanner’s classroom and others like it have become part of a fight over early education funding. Almost immediately after the pre-kindergarten program was created, Republican lawmakers targeted it for cuts. That’s despite a track record of academic improvement and ever-increasing demand for pre-school, says state Education Commissioner Mike Hanley.
“We just don’t have the access to pre-school in our state for kids that a lot of other states have, or that we really need, at any level, whether it’s private or public. It’s challenging to find it always on the chopping block.”
Gov. Sean Parnell had funded the program at $2.5 million next year, but about a half million of that has been slashed from the budget being considered by the legislature. Hanley says that if that cut goes through, the program will have to turn away 135 kids. And that gap won’t be made up by the federal Head Start program. Because of sequestration, Head Start is shrinking by almost the same number of kids.
One of the justifications for the funding cut was that state pre-K could be in competition with privately owned schools or daycare centers. Hanley’s skeptical of that, especially when it comes to some of the rural districts the program serves:
“I think the argument that we’d be taking students — clients, if you will — from the private and suddenly sacrificing the private side … It seems to be an erroneous type of an argument. There are a lot of kids that need the support.”
Back at Gastineau, Wanner tries to avoid thinking about the politics surrounding her classroom. But’s she also puzzled by the confusion over what her program does and who uses it:
“Oh my gosh. It’s a 100 percent different from day care. We do individual plans, so if a kid needs special areas where they need to work on best, you know, I can tell you social and emotional skills are the key component for here in our classroom because that’s the first thing they need to get those pre-academic skills going.”
Wanner says it’s difficult not knowing how big her classroom will be next year with all the uncertainty surrounding the program. Right now, the Alaska Senate is set to take up the state operating budget on Thursday, with Democrats planning to introduce amendments to restore the pre-school funding. But given their small minority, the change is not expected to get traction. Some Republican senators have said that they’re working on a separate education funding package that could include more money for early education, but so far, details have not been released.