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Bentley calls for funding increase for Ala.’s voluntary pre-K program
By Deangelo McDaniel
The Decatur Daily

Dave Martin/Associated Press
Gov. Robert Bentley delivers his State of the State address to a combined session of the Alabama Legislature in the historic House chamber of the Capitol in Montgomery on Tuesday.

A Decatur-based movement to ensure every child in Morgan County has access to pre-kindergarten got a boost from Gov. Robert Bentley on Tuesday night.

In his State of the State address, Bentley called for lawmakers to increase the amount of money Alabama spends on its pre-K voluntary program for 4-year-olds.

Bentley did not mention an amount or source of the additional funding. The Alabama School Readiness Alliance’s Pre-K Task Force is asking the state to increase pre-K funding by $12.5 million annually for 10 years.

That would increase next year’s pre-K budget from $19 million to $31.5 million.

State Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, who serves on the House Education Budget Committee, supports more funding for pre-K, but she’s not as optimistic about the $12.5 million increase now as she was in December.

“We’re going to have some extra money, but not as much as we had hoped for,” she said Tuesday.

Collins said education revenue may grow $200 million to $300 million, but about $125 million of that money is committed and another $33 million has to be set aside for fleet renewal.

“The revenue is not going to be where we thought it would be, but we’re not having to cut,” she said.

When the Decatur-Morgan County Minority Development Association kicked off a fundraising campaign to make pre-K available for every child in Decatur, Collins anticipated a $400 million surplus.

Decatur businessman Murphy Brown, who advocates pre-K for every child, said any additional funding is a step toward equalizing a system in Decatur that many consider unfair.

Decatur City Schools uses a lottery to select 4-year-olds for its pre-K program. This year, 126 students are enrolled and almost 80 are on a waiting list, according to Jeanne Payne, supervisor of curriculum and staff development.

An estimated 500 children are not part of the lottery.

Brown, working with the chamber’s Quality Education Committee, said they are gathering data for the entire county with hopes of piloting a program for the state if funds become available in October.

“We’re ahead of the game because we have been assessing our needs,” Brown said.

The National Institute for Early Education Research gave the state’s First Class pre-K program a No. 1 quality ranking. But the state ranks 33rd in the nation for access, with only about 6 percent of its 4-year-olds in pre-K.

Decatur City Schools Superintendent Ed Nichols said classroom space is one of the problems.

“As we are structured now, space would be a problem,” he said.

Nichols said Decatur would have room for five additional pre-K classrooms.

The Pre-K Task Force wants to expand the free pre-K program to cover the state within the next decade.

The organization estimates that it would cost about $125 million annually to do this.

Deangelo McDaniel can be reached at 256-340-2469 or deangelo@decaturdaily.com.

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