Alaska Reads Act contains provisions to deliver universal pre-K across Alaska

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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Legislation before the Alaska Senate aims to offer preschool programs to every interested student across the state within seven years.

Senate Bill 6, also known as the Alaska Reads Act, aims to improve the state’s reading and literacy outcomes. Gov. Mike Dunleavy worked with Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, to craft the legislation that includes provisions to deliver universal pre-K.

“For the second year in a row, Alaska’s students ranked last out of all 50 states in grade four reading performance,” the governor said through a prepared statement at the time of the unveiling of the bill in January. “In 2019, only 37% of Alaska’s grade three students were proficient in reading on the statewide summative assessment."

Universal pre-K has been a long-term goal of many education advocates across Alaska.

Shawn Arnold, the president of the Alaska Superintendents Association, says that students are better prepared when they come to kindergarten from structured early childhood education.

Many districts have separate federally funded Head Start preschool programs or private options. SB 6 would expand the voluntary state-funded opportunities for students.

At Harborview Elementary School in downtown Juneau, a small group of preschool students meet for an afternoon class.

Molly Hillis, a preschool teacher at Harborview, says that she can see a lot of growth in the year she has with her students. Much of the growth comes from learning problem solving and self-reliance.

“Lots of kids who come in haven’t had the experience of really spending time with larger groups of kids,” she said.

Dr. Bridget Weiss, the Juneau School District superintendent, says that the programs offered by the district through state and city funding have proven popular. There are waiting lists and Weiss hopes SB 6 could offer more places.

As the superintendent in Valdez, Arnold said the district offers preschool programs to roughly 40 kids. There are 30 more kids in Valdez who would be eligible to sign-up for pre-K if those places existed.

In Anchorage, the scale of the challenge is much larger.

Chelsea Mauro, the preschool director of the district, says there are currently 374 general education students enrolled in state-funded preschool programs in Anchorage. The waiting list is 470 kids long.

“It makes a huge difference,” Mauro said when asked what early education can do to prepare kids for school.

SB 6 as written would gradually expand preschool programs, targeting the lowest-performing districts first and then offer programs all across Alaska within seven years, Begich said.

Research suggests that preschool programs can be highly beneficial for student’s education outcomes and also lead to measurably lower incarceration rates and higher incomes.

The program would cost $1.7 million for the next fiscal year and is funded under the governor’s proposed budget.

The program would then rely on state grants for three years, after that period, pre-kindergarten students would be funded at half the rate of the funding formula used for older Alaska students.

The nonpartisan legislative finance division estimates that it would cost $17 million per year in FY2027 to educate an additional 3,675 students.

The legislation is currently before the Senate Education Committee.

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