An additional 7,000 children from low-income families will have the opportunity to attend pre-kindergarten programs this fall, thanks to an act passed by the Legislature during the special session earlier this year.
The Legislature approved Act 49 of 2004 to increase funding for the Arkansas Better Chance for School Success Program by about $40 million.
Last year funding of the program had been $13 million. The pre-school program is designed to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds who otherwise would begin kindergarten well behind children from more prosperous families. Studies indicate that students who begin school at a disadvantage are unlikely to ever catch up.
School districts are not required to offer the pre-school programs unless for the previous two years 75 percent of their students did not score at grade level on standardized tests known as Benchmark Exams.
Also, if the state Education Department has designated a school as being in academic distress, it must participate.
Children aged 3 and 4 will be eligible to attend the pre-kindergarten classes if they live in families whose yearly income is below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. The state estimates that 22,000 children fit that criteria, but only 7,500 of them are enrolled in pre-school programs because of a lack of funding.
Supporters of pre-school programs will try to persuade the Legislature to increase funding even more in the regular session that begins in January.
It's estimated that an additional $60 million would be needed to pay for pre-kindergarten for all the children who are eligible because of their families' low income.
The Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education, within the state Human Services Department, is administering the funding.
A Division official emphasized that the accredited pre-school programs should not be considered day care facilities. They will teach learning basics to prepare the children for school, she said.
Children whose siblings qualify for free or reduced priced lunches in school are probably eligible, as are children who qualify for assistance from Medicaid and the state ARKids First program.
To determine their children are eligible, parents can call 1-800-445-3316. Parents who speak Spanish can call 1-800-543-7564. Call before Oct. 1.
Tax amnesty deadline
Act 70 of the special session created a tax amnesty program to forgive interest and penalties levied on back taxes owed before Jan. 1, 2003.
For individual income taxes, tax year 2001 is the last year eligible for amnesty.
Interest on back taxes is 10 percent a year and penalties often are greater. They will be forgiven if the taxpayer applies for amnesty before Sept. 30.
The tax amount due must be paid within three months of applying for amnesty, and amnesty will not be granted to taxpayers who have yet to pay other state taxes that are due.
Call 1-800-340-9509 for information or visit the Department of Finance and Administration Web site at http://www.arkansas.gov/dfa/amnesty.html.