Arkansas LEARNS | Early Childhood

Earlier this year, Forward Arkansas released its State of Education in Arkansas 2023 report. The report represented the accumulation of data, community voice and best practices to provide an assessment of the current state of Arkansas education and identify opportunities for dramatic improvement. Following the release of the report, the state of Arkansas enacted the LEARNS Act aimed at addressing many of the education challenges we face and improving outcomes for students. The Act is wide-ranging, impacting many aspects of our education system and includes several core priorities highlighted within the State of Education 2023 report. In the following blog, our second installment of a series of blogs, we spotlight the changes related to early childhood education contained within the LEARNS Act. Our goal is to continue to inform Arkansans about our current state of education and how policy changes enacted through LEARNS will impact Arkansas education and our students.

Headline: LEARNS works to structurally unify a siloed early childhood system. Arkansas's early childhood system is facing staffing, access, and coordination issues, and a unified approach to addressing these challenges would increase efficiency if implemented well..

Current State: In our State of Education in Arkansas 2023 report, the overwhelming recommendation from Arkansans was to expand access to quality early childhood education, with a particular emphasis on building a sustained high-quality early childhood workforce. Strategic and sustainable solutions to the needs of Arkansans have to be data-driven but because of the current separation in early childhood governance, Arkansas can not effectively assess the entirety of the early childhood system. In a recent analysis of Arkansas’s early childhood system, four considerations arose:

  • Governance: Currently, early childhood governance coincides with the funding stream, creating various rules, regulations and a siloed system.
  • Access: There is no way to accurately count the number of Arkansas children from birth to five being served in publicly-funded early childhood programs. Our best estimates indicate about 39,000 out of the 120,000 economically disadvantaged children are being served.
    • Going a touch deeper: These numbers don't include Early Intervention Day Treatment (EIDT), which serves a similar number of our youth as the commonly known early childhood care types such as Head Start.
  • Workforce: We currently don't have an accurate count of the state’s early childhood teachers and educators.
  • Quality: Arkansas has a quality rating and improvement system (QRIS) in place, which covers structural elements, but lacks other domains of quality related to kindergarten readiness.
    • One layer deeper: Many early childhood advocates disagree on the outright lack of connection between the QRIS and kindergarten readiness, but do acknowledge the voluntary component of the QRIS.

LEARNS: Between the LEARNS Executive Order and the Act, LEARNS is continuing previous work in the early childhood space by:

  1. Unifying a siloed system:
    1. Pulls early childhood functions, which reside across multiple state agencies under the Arkansas Department of Education, to a newly created office, titled “Office of Early Childhood”
    2. Gives new duties to the state board of education to administrate the early learning and education system
  2. Providing definition: The state board of education, under their new duties and functions, will:
    1. Define a statewide definition of kindergarten readiness
    2. Create a simple, clear and understandable uniform accountability system for publicly funded early childcare
    3. Create a website showing available early childhood programs for parents
  3. Providing data: Through a kindergarten readiness report (dig deeper here) and the utilization of local organizations in a coordinated approach to identify local gaps in care and support enrollment.
  4. Prioritization of funds:
    1. Creates the Child Care Grant Fund Account
    2. Creates the Child Care and Early Childhood Fund Account
    3. Mentions the prioritization of state and federal funds to expand access (found within the executive order)

What we are watching:

  1. Utilization of local organizations - Arkansas has 75 counties, about 500 municipalities and an estimated 180,000 children from ages birth to 5. Coordinating local organizations in such a vast space to support access, identify gaps, foster partnerships, create alignment, and establish a local plan to provide early childhood services in a community is a tall order. If done ineffectively, the access, the quality and the outcomes might mirror the present inequities in our state. We don't have to reinvent the wheel. Smart Start in North Carolina has coordinated public/private partnerships in all North Carolina counties beginning in the 90s under one umbrella in service of similar goals. Smart Start could provide a template for Arkansas.
  2. Definition of quality - The current language within LEARNS might read as though Arkansas is without a quality rating system, early childhood standards, or workforce competencies – we have all of those in place. However, as we move the function of early childhood under the ADE umbrella and with the State Board of Education and definitions of quality are defined and revised, let's continue to remember that quality is not just teaching and learning, it should include development, environment, and other foundational components pertinent to the growth and development of our children and the skills needed for K-12.
  3. Funding - A benefit of a unified early childhood system is streamlined coordination of the various early childhood funding sources. In theory, the changes would encourage greater take-up of public funding by early childhood providers, greater access to early childhood care for families, and desirable outcomes for Arkansas children. However, let's make sure the subsidy can truly cover the cost for high-quality early childhood care. Spreading current dollars out does increase the number of opportunities granted, but it could price out certain families around certain income thresholds.

Bottom line: Early childhood education is a strong predictor of future outcomes, and a developed early childhood system has current and future economic implications. Arkansans expressed in our State of Education 2023 report their desire for expanded access to quality early childcare and a strengthened early childhood workforce, and the measures within LEARNS could actualize those desires. As we move towards implementation, the structural changes proposed should be informed by best practices, Arkansas-specific data, and the voices of the early childhood community and their families.