Alaska must stop passing up early childhood education funds

The Oct. 14 deadline for the state of Alaska to apply for federal funds under the U.S. Department of Education's Preschool Development Grants program has come and gone. Alaska would have been eligible to apply for $10 million but did not submit an application. Unfortunately, this is just the latest example of Alaska choosing not to reclaim some of the federal tax dollars we pay and use them to increase early childhood opportunities in our state.

For a bit of background on this specific federal grant: The Preschool Development Grants were divided into two separate application and award processes. The largest category was $160 million, which was set aside for "expansion." This was available to 35 states and the District of Columbia, because they have more established preschool programs. The other portion of funding contained $80 million, which was set aside for states that need "development" of their preschool programs. Alaska falls into this group and we would have been competing with 14 other states and Puerto Rico.

Alaska is falling further and further behind when it comes to early childhood investments. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, in the 2002-2003 school year, Alaska served 22 percent of its 4-year-old children in either Head Start or special education or state pre-kindergarten programs. A decade later, in the 2012-2013 school year, the picture remained the same -- 22 percent of Alaska's 4-year-olds were enrolled in one of these three programs.

Meanwhile, the rest of the country (and world) is making voluntary preschool opportunities available for an increasingly higher percentage of 4-year-olds. In the 2002-2003 school year, 34 percent of the 4-year-old population in the United States was enrolled in either Head Start, special education or state pre-kindergarten programs. In the 2012-2013 school year, the percentage rose to 41 percent.

So, in the past 10 years, Alaska hasn't made any progress in expanding early childhood opportunities. We must not have had the available resources, right? Wrong; look at the following missed opportunities at just the federal level:

FY10: creation of state advisory councils -- $100 million. All U.S. states and territories were eligible to apply. Fifty applications were received and 50 awards were made. Alaska didn't apply.

FY11: Race to the Top -- $497 million. Thirty-seven states applied; nine were funded. Alaska didn't apply.

FY12: Race to the Top -- $133 million. Five more states were funded (from the original 37 applications).

FY13: Race to the Top -- $370 million. Seventeen states applied; five were funded. Alaska didn't apply.

And now, our state has also chosen not to pursue the Preschool Development Grant. Clearly, other states have prioritized early childhood education and made significant progress. However, Alaska continues to say no to additional opportunities for our youngest residents and their families.

Please let your elected officials know that your priorities don't agree with the lack of action outlined above. It is time that Alaska says yes to our youngest residents and backs its words up with investment in their futures.

Mark Lackey is executive director of CCS Early Learning, a nonprofit organization serving the Mat-Su Borough, Chugiak and Eagle River as the Head Start and Early Head Start grantee. It is one of 16 Head Start grantees in Alaska, each serving a different geographical area.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.