Saturday, May 13, 2023

Alabama Pre-K thrived outside of politics. Then Kay Ivey dragged it in

  Living in Alabama means seeing our state rank high on lists we’d rather not be on. 

  Infant mortality. Heart attacks. Homicides. 

  And we’re used to seeing the state rank low on lists people value. 

  Per-student spending. Educational attainment. Standardized testing. 

  So it’s natural to celebrate those rare moments we end up on top of something with people looking up at us. 

  Football is our go-to here. Its effect on our self-esteem goes back to the 1926 Rose Bowl. 

  But there’s also the state’s First Class pre-kindergarten program. It’s the single biggest Alabama policy success story of the last 20 years. 

  The state funds preschool programs for 4-year-olds with a few conditions. The schools have to stick with a state-approved curriculum, hire qualified teachers, and keep classes under a certain size. 

  And it works. Spectacularly well. 

  A 2019 study by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) found that students who finished Alabama pre-K had improved proficiency and reduced need for special education services. 

  A 2020 study found that pre-K graduates scored higher in public school than those who had not been through the program, with effects lasting into the seventh grade. 

  The National Institute of Early Education Research consistently gives Alabama’s pre-K program high marks for quality instruction. In 2013, The New York Times reported that it was being used as a model for federal pre-kindergarten programs. 

  You get so used to the Alabama Legislature letting dumb policies persist, addressing nonexistent problems, or creating problems in order to attack marginalized groups that it’s perplexing to see Goat Hill do something to improve the state. 

  That success comes in part from the depoliticization of the issue. In some ways, it’s a no-brainer. Voting against 4-year-olds is kind of difficult. And business groups, with some of the loudest voices in state government, have pushed hard for the pre-kindergarten program. 

  But give the legislature credit. In 2010, only 6% of eligible 4-year-olds could get into the program.

  Democrats and Republicans raised funding for pre-kindergarten almost every year since then, even when the budgets were in such dire shape that legislators searched the couches for loose change. Pre-K got about $17.5 million in 2010. It’s set to receive $186.2 million this year. And the program now enrolls 45% of eligible 4-year-olds. 

  I wish that legislators would see how increased funding benefitted pre-K and apply that lesson to K-12 schools. But let’s call this what it is: a legitimate success. 

  Now Gov. Kay Ivey wants to mess with it. 

Endangering the program

  Someone filed a complaint with Rep. Jamie Kiel (R-Russellville) that got to Ivey. The complaint alleged that the program was using a book with dangerous concepts that Ivey in a statement described as “woke.” This not only led to the removal of the book. Ivey also forced out Barbara Cooper, an experienced and widely respected educator, who had headed the department since 2020. 

  I’ve read the book, the National Association for the Education of Young Children Developmentally Appropriate Practice Book. Here’s some of the rhetoric Ivey and Kiel consider dangerous: 

    “Children from all families (e.g. single parent, grandparent-led, foster, LGBTQIA+) need to hear and see messages that promote equality, dignity and worth.”

    “Including books that explore and celebrate different types of hair, different skin colors, and a range of abilities helps to shape a child’s positive self-identity, contributing to feelings of belonging and fostering a sense of caring for others.”

  In a word: empathy. 

  Keep in mind that this is a book for teachers. It wants them to be aware that the young children in their classrooms come from different backgrounds and encourages them to reflect on their own biases as they try to create a welcoming environment for young people.

  Ivey, who is white, complained that the book described “larger systemic forces that perpetuate systems of white privilege” and that “the United States is built on systemic and structural racism.”

  The governor of Alabama, a state built on slavery, where Black Alabamians were lynched, disenfranchised, discriminated against, and forced into second-class public facilities for the better part of a century; where human bondage and segregation still leave their marks on school funding, public health, and economic opportunity, is so upset that someone noted the existence of racism in the United States that she ousted her Early Childhood Education Secretary, who is Black. 

  The idea that teachers should consider their students’ backgrounds in building a classroom is controversial only if you think 4-year-olds should be instructed by an American flag that says “no woke” on an endless loop. 

  Ivey said that she wanted to go back to “basics” in the pre-K program. But if a kid doesn’t feel comfortable in a classroom, that kid is going to struggle to learn. 

  “We know that children can’t learn math, science, and reading if they don’t feel seen, safe, and supported – which is what developmentally appropriate practice (DAP) is all about,” the NAEYC said in a petition to support the use of the guide.

  In one stroke, Ivey politicized a rare Alabama program that thrived under a bipartisan consensus. She threw out a nationally respected guide to training teachers. 

  And she’s told people who want 4-year-olds — 4-year-olds! — to get something less than a happy learning environment that her door is open to their dumb ideas. 

  When the governor of Alabama signals that acknowledging that people are different is grounds for termination, they’re going to be a lot less willing to do the kinds of things that teach a kid empathy. And they’re going to make it a lot harder to teach kids.

  It’s doubtful that Pre-K in the state will face any short-term difficulties. But Ivey has now made the program a place where Alabama’s politicians can indulge their stupidest right-wing fantasies. 

  Now preschool educators have to navigate the petty grievances of Alabama politics. A program that was a rare example of the state looking forward is going to get dragged into all the small-minded resentments that hold us back.

  Enjoy pre-K’s high ranking while you can. Your state leaders want to drown it in the political bitterness that’s destroyed so many other good things in Alabama.

  About the author: Brian Lyman is the editor of Alabama Reflector. He has covered Alabama politics since 2006 and worked at the Montgomery Advertiser, the Press-Register, and The Anniston Star. His work has won awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors, the Alabama Press Association, and Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights.

  This article was published by Alabama Reflector.

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