Alabama Pre-K enrollment down during pandemic, still highly-ranked by national group
Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program again has won national accolades for the 15th consecutive year.
The National Institute for Early Education Research’s annual report, released Monday, found Alabama is one of only six top-ranking states meeting benchmarks for curriculum standards, teacher training and class size. The other states were Michigan, Mississippi, Rhode Island, Hawaii and Missouri.
“Ensuring our youngest learners have a strong start to their educational journeys is important now, more than ever,” Gov. Kay Ivey said in a press release Monday.
Enrollment was down nationally for the 2020-21 school year as, according to NIEER, parents feared sending children to in-person school during the pandemic. Alabama’s program also saw lower enrollment and currently serves 18,906 students in 1,250 classrooms statewide.
Alabama’s state-funded program served 20,439 or 37% of eligible 4-year-old children in 1,039 classrooms across all 67 counties in both public and private settings during the 2019-20 school year.
On a press call, Ivey said children who participate in the program “demonstrate higher readiness with kindergarten, are less likely to be chronically absent, are less likely to be held back a grade, and are less likely to need special education services in k(indergarten) through 12.”
“Folks, these results speak for themselves and there is simply no better return on investment than high-quality early childhood education,” Ivey said.
While Alabama’s program is lauded for its high quality, access is a different issue.
Nationally, Alabama ranked 17th in the number of 4-year-olds who have access to the state’s program. And access is uneven statewide, with percentages of eligible 4-year-olds enrolled in the program varying from 14% in Lowndes and Shelby counties, to 90% in Butler County.
Ivey defended the program’s expansion rate.
“We’re making good steady progress,” she said, “and we have developed a plan where we can see our way clear to achieving our goal of 70% of all 4-year-olds being in the program by the year 2025.”
Alabama’s program does not serve any 3-year-olds, something NIEER has called for states to provide. Steven Barnett, the institute’s senior co-director, encouraged the state to consider further expansion.
Last month, the Senate approved the full request, but the education budget has not yet been taken up by the House.
In Alabama, average state spending per First Class Pre-K student was $6,008, up from $5,654 in 2018-19, but slightly lower than the $6,800 average per-student spending for kindergarten through twelfth grade in 2019-20. Nationally, state spending per pre-K student was $5,499 according to NIEER.