A Stake in the Ground: The need for Pre-K education

While Alabama State Department of Education Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice understands the need restructure the state’s K12 education system, he also grasps the importance of impacting pre-education.

More specifically, the Bice’s vision of what Alabama’s public education system should be carries with it the very key component of a strong pre-kindergarten program.

The need for such a program, Bice explained during his address to the Demopolis Rotary Club last week, was underscored when the superintendent decided to spend time in some of the state’s prisons.

“The other place that I’ve spent time that I never thought I’d spend time in this first year on the job, I’ve spent probably two to three weeks in Alabama prisons talking to Alabama prisoners because I wanted to get a perception of what they had to tell us about what we didn’t do right for them,” Bice said of his efforts to learn from the consumers who were in some way failed by the state’s education system. “A very startling statistic is that eight out of every 10 prisoners in the State of Alabama was a high school dropout.”

The correlation between high school dropout and Pre-K education is a line that is quite clear to Bice. He explained that students who begin school behind their peers never catch up by the third grade, begin dropping out by middle school and have abandoned school entirely by the age of 17.

Efforts to identify those most at risk for suffering through such a cycle led Bice and his staff to an inarguable conclusion: children of families with limited resources are likely to fall behind their peers early.

“I know this area of the State of Alabama, much like where I live in Alexander City, has lots of poverty. Our state is a high, high poverty state. We know that the achievement gap for students that are born into poverty begins the day they’re born,” Bice said. “We know of lots and lots of students who show up in kindergarten who have never seen a book, who have never been in any sort of formalized program at all. And we’ve seen kids show up that don’t really even know their name that’s on their birth certificate. They only know what they’ve been called for the first five years of their lives.”

The plan for breaking that cycle and getting all of Alabama’s students on equal footing requires additional funding and the assistance of entities outside ALSDE.

“We start providing voluntary, diverse delivery either at schools, faith-based organizations, private preschools,” Bice said. “We want to set a standard for what we think preschool should look like and bring that statewide for three and four year olds on a voluntary basis.”

Establishing such programs would require a considerable amount of funding, a sacrifice Bice said the state can’t afford to avoid.

“We’ve looked at what that would cost for the State of Alabama and it would cost $129 million. I know that’s an enormous amount of money. But, as we were doing this study to see what it would cost, we did something we typically don’t do when we make decisions. We looked at what it would cost if we didn’t do it,” Bice said. “What we looked at was children of poverty that come to kindergarten five years behind already. They never catch up by third grade. By eighth grade, start dropping out of school. Eventually drop out by age 17. So we looked at that cost and what would have happened if we would have intervened in (prisoners’) lives earlier. So, the figure that we’ve come up with is that we can spend $129 million in Pre-K education to equip kids to be ready to learn when they get to kindergarten or we can spend $2 billion on the other end of that continuum forever to keep our prison system and that part of our state functional. To me, that return on investment is a pretty easy stake in the ground for us to take. We’re going to be really focused on what Pre-K education is going to look like.”


Part five of a five-part series on the changing face of Alabama’s education system. The series is taken from an address state superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice gave to the Demopolis Rotary Club last week.