LITTLE ROCK — A legislative panel on Tuesday rejected a state senator’s motion to approve appropriating an additional $16 million for Arkansas’ early childhood education program.

LITTLE ROCK — A legislative panel on Tuesday rejected a state senator’s motion to approve appropriating an additional $16 million for Arkansas’ early childhood education program.


Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, said she will continue to advocate for an increased appropriation for the Arkansas Better Chance program during the legislative session that begins in January.


Elliott made her motion during a meeting of the Joint Budget Committee and the Legislative Council, which were reviewing budget requests from the state Department of Education. Although the agency did not request a increase for the pre-Kindergarten program and Gov. Mike Beebe’s office did not recommend one, Elliott said an increase is needed.


She said that according to information presented Monday to the House and Senate education committees, the program’s funding has been flat — at $111 million a year — since 2008, and as a result providers are struggling to keep up with inflation.


A $16 million increase would make up for what the program would have received if over the last eight years funding had been increased by 2 percent per year, "which is basically what it would have taken for us to be at a level now just to maintain," Elliott said.


"This is not about adding." she said. "It’s about maintaining the program. It doesn’t even approach anything about addressing the number of students who are not in the program. Right now we serve approximately 56 percent of (eligible) students."


Elliott said she was asking only for an appropriation, meaning the Legislature would authorize spending up to that amount but the spending would not be guaranteed.


Sens. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, and Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, spoke against the motion. Hendren noted that Gov.-elect Asa Hutchinson will have his own budget proposals.


"I think many times we (say), ‘Oh, it’s just an appropriation,’ but it’s also a statement of the priorities of the General Assembly," Hendren said. "I just don’t think right now we’re in a position to make a $16 million decision based on a report that we had in the Education Committee yesterday. I think this needs to be re-thought a little bit and discussed at the appropriate time when the session begins."


Irvin said, "In speaking with my school district, they have adequate funding for this, to maintain what they already have."


Elliott’s motion failed in a voice vote. She told reporters later she will push during the session for an increased appropriation for ABC and will look for private sources of funding.


"We will be exploring every kind of source we can, because it’s that dire," she said.


Jerri Derlikowski, director of education policy for the nonprofit group Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, which supports boosting funding for the ABC program, told reporters that between 2008 and 2015 the Legislature increased funding for prisons by 19 percent.


"If we can’t switch our priorities and invest in our kids when they’re young, so they hopefully will be more successful and able to achieve academic success and be successful citizens, then we’re going to continue to have to pay at the back end at a higher cost and a waste of our human capital in the state. It just seems to me a little bit penny wise and pound foolish to not invest in pre-K," she said.


But Derlikowski acknowledged that legislators are "in a holding pattern, waiting to see how big tax cuts are proposed" and whether a decision will be made to build a new state prison.


Hutchinson has said he supports fully funding the existing ABC program but has not yet released a proposed budget. He also has said his top priority is fulfilling his campaign promise to cut state income taxes by $100 million.