Expanding Access to Quality Early Childhood Education in Arkansas

A multi-ethnic group of seven children standing in a row in a school hallway, laughing and smiling at the camera. The little boys and girls are kindergarten or preschool age, 4 to 6 years.
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A recent Arkansas Department of Education analysis found highly rated early childhood programs serve many of our state’s children. Yet 81,000 eligible children still lack access to publicly funded early learning experiences, particularly in rural areas, and enter kindergarten “not ready to learn.”

At Governor Sarah Sanders’ urging, the Arkansas General Assembly passed a comprehensive education reform package during the 2023 regular session to address this gap. The LEARNS Act focuses on five key areas of improvement: Literacy, Empowerment, Accountability, Readiness, Networking, and School Safety. To fulfill its objectives for “L” and ensure that every child in Arkansas can read and write proficiently, LEARNS aims to align and bolster our early childhood education system.

As a state board member, I’m often asked, “Why the laser focus on early childhood education?” Look no further than the data. Early childhood education programs that boast educated teachers, smaller class sizes, or lower child-staff ratios, such as those accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, have been proven to amplify the benefits for participating children. According to a study published in Science, high-quality early learning experiences can markedly increase young children’s later educational attainment and earning potential.[1] A report in The Future of Children indicates that effective early childhood education programs can also help reduce educational gaps, particularly among children from low-income.[2]

Early childhood education programs that boast educated teachers, smaller class sizes, or lower child-staff ratios have been proven to amplify the benefits for participating children.

After the LEARNS Act passed, the Arkansas State Board of Education established a subcommittee with members from nearly every subset of early childhood education programs—faith-based, private-pay, Head Start, and more—to tackle the next steps and work in collaboration with the Office of Early Childhood and key players in the K-12 space. Our group will bolster the state’s early childhood education system through three primary tactics. First, we will identify and enact potential state-local partnerships. Second, we will work with local lead agencies established by the LEARNS Act to determine a more accurate count of children served by publicly funded programs to inform future decision-making. Third, we will help establish and implement a vision for quality early care and education tied to a statewide kindergarten readiness assessment, again with assistance from our local leads.

As a subcommittee, we understand that incorporating input from those at early child care programs will be crucial to meeting our goals. Local leads will serve as an essential resource throughout the process. We have enlisted these trusted individuals—from within and outside the education sector—to hold town hall meetings, small group discussions, and one-on-one conversations to gather critical data about our providers’ challenges and opportunities. The insights they have already gathered have helped identify the areas of greatest need, such as a shortage of infant and toddler seats, and will continue to do so.

Through the local leads and ongoing community input, our subcommittee has identified four priority “buckets” of improvement. First and foremost, we want to address access by determining how we can leverage funds to expand the capacity of existing providers and establish new facilities where they are needed most. We also want to explore how we can implement high-quality instructional materials to complement our state’s emphasis on the science of reading. We must also address the pathways between career and technical education and concurrent credits to encourage more students to become effective early childhood educators. Finally, we must implement standardized, less burdensome, more supportive regulatory practices and rulemaking for early childhood education programs.

We want to address access by determining how we can leverage funds to expand the capacity of existing providers and establish new facilities where they are needed most.

We’ve all heard the saying, “Children are our future,” and it is true. Today’s students will become the next generation of business and community leaders. Their contributions will sustain and fuel our economic growth. Without an educated, prepared workforce, we cannot recruit and retain new industries or continue competing globally. Ensuring access to affordable, quality early learning programs for families across the state is key to this goal.

It has been a little over a year since Governor Sarah Sanders signed the LEARNS Act into law. For our subcommittee, the law is a roadmap for deploying accessible, high-quality early childhood education across the state. With continued support from the board of education and other government agencies, we will see residents—students, educators, families, and communities—come together to advance early learning opportunities. United and aligned, I hope we can set our children—and our economy—up for long-term success.

Leigh Keener is an Arkansas State Board of Education member appointed by Governor Sarah Sanders to serve from August 2023 to June 2030. A Little Rock native, she graduated from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and holds a certificate in early education leadership from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. During her more than 20-year career in Arkansas education, she has worked in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors.

[1] Frances Campbell et al., “Early Childhood Investments Substantially Boost Adult Health,” Science 343, no. 6178 (March 28, 2014), doi: 10.1126/science.1248429.

[2] Katherine A. Magnuson and Jane Waldfogel, “Early Childhood Care and Education: Effects on Ethnic and Racial Gaps in School Readiness,” The Future of Children 15, no. 1 (Spring 2005), 10.1353/foc.2005.0005.

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