This study examines the effects of the Arkansas Better Chance (ABC) initiative on kindergarten admission through a regression-discontinuity design. The Office of Early Childhood (formerly known as the Child Care Division & of Early Childhood Education) is aware that the early years are essential for brain development and learning, so it strives to guarantee that children and families have access to safe, high-quality, and enriching care. To achieve this, the office educates and assists parents; licenses, regulates, and supports child care providers; and works with communities to prepare children for future success. It also collaborates closely with the Commission on Early Childhood.
Last year, state-funded preschools in Arkansas and across the nation partially recovered from the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, Head Start provides free care and early education services for young children in poverty, but it only reaches less than half of eligible preschoolers. To better serve the needs of families, allow parents to participate in the workforce, and help boost a recovering economy, expanding investment in programs for infants and toddlers and preschoolers is necessary. Some providers may need help with technical forms to outsource to the state, while others may need initial funding for additional curricula, educational material such as painting or books, or so that educators can access continuing education or obtain more credentials.
Expanding preschool education also creates an enormous need for more teachers and educators, so investing in family child care educators who work hard as part of the system is a strategic decision. The current system of child care and education is too uneven in terms of quality and access and requires more investment to live up to its potential. The federal role in promoting equity and excellence in education outlines key policies that can help accelerate efforts to ensure that all young people have equal access to high-quality, world-class education. As a result, children and families are more likely to experience interruptions in services when children move from early intervention and must be referred and reevaluated to determine their eligibility for preschool special education.
For example, in a given community, the qualifications required for a preschool teacher can range from minimal or no training or education to a university degree, depending on the funding source of the program in which they work, and not according to the developmental needs of the children. Another way the federal government could support a unified special education system is to provide greater assistance and monitoring to ensure that children are offered programs in the least restrictive environment, particularly to ensure that states work to increase the proportion of preschool children served in conventional preschool programs. For example, a 3-year-old child receiving a child care subsidy may be in a preschool class with a much less qualified teacher and more children per adult than a child in a Head Start program. The federal government funds Head Start and Early Head Start, child care through the Global Grant for Child Care and Development (CCDBG), early intervention and preschool special education through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and preschool development grants to create state systems for early childhood.
The administration can create a united American approach to early childhood by innovatively combining investment in the care of infants, toddlers and preschoolers. While access to early childhood programs in Arkansas has improved over time, not all children who need them have access to early childhood options, much less to high-quality options. Preschool, a high-quality early education experience for 3- and 4-year-olds in the one or two years before kindergarten, can be a critical lever to promote children's school success and to invest equitably in this country's future.