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Democrats seek expansion of optional preschool programs

Austin Baird

JUNEAU -- A proposal that would allow for state funding for districts that offer pre-kindergarten programs is being considered by the Senate Education Committee.

Anchorage Democratic Sens. Bettye Davis and Hollis French, both sponsors of SB6 and committee members, call the bill an attempt to build on positive results from the first two years of a pilot program at a few districts around Alaska. A state education department report distributed at a hearing Monday shows that children who attended preschool through the program had improved vocabulary skills and were better prepared for kindergarten than their peers.

"This is a very structured set of measurements to be sure the money we're spending is going to good use," French said of the report, adding that links between pre-kindergarten education and crime had been suggested at a legislative crime summit earlier this year.

French told the committee he expected anecdotal criticism of the proposal, something to the effect that costs outweigh benefits and that starting school a year earlier is unnecessary.

Lynn Reynolds of Wasilla told the committee by phone that he didn't like the extra spending and that extra schooling was an attempt to stamp out "family values."

"My concern is that the values of the previous generations be passed along to future generations," Reynolds said. "I think that's especially difficult as you start to separate the children at an earlier age."

Sen. Joe Thomas, D-Fairbanks, co-chair of the education committee, said economic questions will be answered at length when the bill makes its way to the Senate Finance Committee. Davis pointed out that the proposal would be optional, as the state only requires school attendance after children turn 7 years old. Her bill calls for preschool funding for 4- and 5-year-olds.

The Education Department estimates the cost of the proposed expansion at about $41.8 million per year.

"We have the money," Davis said. "And saying it's bad to give parents options is just wrong."

The committee is firming up the language of the bill but plans to discuss it again later this week.

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By AUSTIN BAIRD
Associated Press