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Democratic governor hopeful Mike Ross proposes expanding Arkansas' prekindergarten program

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LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Mike Ross proposed Wednesday expanding Arkansas' prekindergarten program to make it accessible to every 4-year-old in the state, a plan that he says eventually would cost an additional $37.4 million a year.

Ross detailed a proposal to gradually expand the Arkansas Better Chance pre-K program, which has seen it funding remain flat over the past several years. Ross said his plan was to make the program available to all 4-year-old by 2025.

"No child in Arkansas should ever be on a waiting list for pre-K," Ross said at a news conference at Fair Park Early Childhood Center in Little Rock. "Over the last few decades, we have made great progress in expanding access to pre-K, but funding has been flat-lined since 2008 and we are running the risk of getting left behind."

More than 15,000 4-year-olds are currently in the state's prekindergarten program. The program currently receives about $102.5 million a year in state funds.

Ross said his plan would initially expand the ABC program, currently available to the children of family's making less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, to those making less than 300 percent. They would not pay anything for the program.

Ross said he eventually would make the program available to those making between 300 percent and 400 percent of the poverty level at half the program's full cost — currently about $140 per week. Ross said his proposal eventually would make the ABC program available to families making more than 400 percent of poverty level at the full rate.

Ross, a former congressman, is running against substitute teacher Lynette Bryant in the May 20 Democratic primary. Former U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchinson is running against Little Rock businessman Curtis Coleman for the Republican nomination.

PHOTO: Arkansas Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Mike Ross speaks at Fair Park Early Childhood Center in Little Rock, Ark., Wednesday, April 2, 2014. Ross announced a proposal to expand the state's prekindergarten program and make it accessible to every 4-year-old in the state, a plan he says will eventually cost an additional $37.4 million a year. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
Arkansas Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Mike Ross speaks at Fair Park Early Childhood Center in Little Rock, Ark., Wednesday, April 2, 2014. Ross announced a proposal to expand the state's prekindergarten program and make it accessible to every 4-year-old in the state, a plan he says will eventually cost an additional $37.4 million a year. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

Ross and Hutchinson have focused primarily on each other in the race for the state's top office and not their lesser-known, underfunded rivals in their respective primaries. Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe is term-limited and unable to run for re-election in November.

Hutchinson criticized Ross' plan as irresponsible, saying he was overpromising without specifying where the money would come from for the expanded program.

"Politicians in Washington, D.C., make promises to spend money without explaining how they'll pay for it," Hutchinson said in a statement released by his campaign. "That is how Washington creates a deficit but it is not how Arkansas should manage its budget."

Coleman also criticized the plan, releasing a statement that said it was "not supported by real-world experience." Bryant was not immediately available for comment.

Ross said the pre-K proposal is the centerpiece of his education plan and said he'll be unveiling other, less costly proposals in the coming months. He's proposing the funding increases for pre-K at the same time he's proposing a gradual cut in the state's income taxes.

Ross said he believed both could be achieved, and said he saw them as equally important.

"We can do all these things as we have revenue growth," Ross said. "It's about priorities."


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PHOTO: Arkansas Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Mike Ross, left, reads to a group of prekindergarten students at Fair Park Early Childhood Center in Little Rock, Ark., Wednesday, April 2, 2014. Ross detailed his plan Wednesday to expand the Arkansas Better Chance program, which has seen its funding remain flat over the past several years. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
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