State Democrats seek more funding for early education

Posted: Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Giving young poor kids an early educational boost will keep them in school and out of jail or the unemployment line, according to some state Democratic lawmakers who are asking Gov. Sarah Palin to increase funding for early education.

The lawmakers want the Republican governor to put more funds into Head Start programs around the state, an early education program for low-income children and which supporters say has been "flat-funded" for the last several years by both the federal and state government. Rising operational costs and inflation have eaten away at the program's ability to reach the state's poorest children, Democrats said, and 19 communities have closed their Head Start programs in the last five years.

Palin has proposed contributing about $6 million in state funds to Head Start during the next fiscal year, which is roughly the same funding level as that in the 2004 fiscal year, according to a legislative analysis.

Democrats said that's not enough, and members in both the House and the Senate wrote letters to Palin this week asking for a $2 million increase in next year's Head Start funding.

"Maybe a dollar isn't worth what it was in 2004," Rep. Andrea Doll, D-Juneau, said in a statement, "but every Alaska child is still worth exactly as much."

There are about 3,500 children enrolled in Head Start statewide. The proposed increase would mean that a few hundred more children, out of about 7,000 total who are eligible, would be enrolled in Head Start, Democrats said.

In Juneau, the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska runs six Head Start programs that serve about 120 kids, 3 to 5 years old, according to the program's director, Albert Rinehart.

Rinehart said the lack of funding increases has meant that the Head Start program has had to use smaller and older facilities, including old buses, than he would like. He added that he would appreciate any funding increase.

"We would probably be able to have facilities where we could have a larger number of kids in our classroom," Rinehart said.

A recent study found that about half of the children in Alaska enter school unprepared to read or learn.

Democrats said there's numerous studies showing that children who receive a quality early education are more likely to finish high school, enroll in college and not go to jail. One study said that for every $1 invested in early education, $7 is saved on special education services, and the corrections system.

Palin's spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said the governor was aware of the Democratic lawmakers' requests but had yet to make a decision.

"We are considering this request along with many others," Leighow said. Changes by the governor to her proposed budget are due to the Legislature by Wednesday.

Even if Palin signals support for upping Head Start's funding, the measure would still have to compete for dollars and attention in a Legislature that is already embroiled in an education funding fight. Palin already has proposed a bigger increase to K-12 funding than some lawmakers say is feasible, and that fracas is likely to get more heated as the session moves forward.

Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, said early education funding is always overshadowed by the debate on how to fund K-12 schools. But he said he's working to change that this year.

"Education doesn't just mean K-12," Kawasaki said.

• Contact reporter Alan Sudermanat 523-2268 or e-mail alan.suderman@juneauempire.com.



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