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Bill Clinton Spotlights a 1980s Early Education Success Story in Arkansas

Will Politicians of Both Parties Follow this Lead to Support Early Learning Today?

Former President Bill Clinton praised Arkansas’ preschool programs during a speech this week at the Democratic National Convention, citing the HIPPY program by name, and recalling the pride of parents at preschool graduation ceremonies.

HIPPY is a well-researched program helping parents support their young child’s learning and development at home, which Hillary Clinton helped introduce to Arkansas. When President Clinton referred to preschool “graduations,” he was talking about the quality center-based preschools that along with HIPPY are part of the Arkansas’ Better Chance (ABC) program. Arkansas families participate in both HIPPY and preschools through ABC, and there is evidence that both have improved educational outcomes for Arkansas’ kids.  Of course, far fewer parents are at home full-time today, so the preschools have become a much larger part of ABC.

As a Scholar in Residence at the Clinton School of Public Service this spring, I had the opportunity to visit some of today’s ABC preschools, review the program’s history and discuss the program’s future with Arkansas’ policy makers.

Arkansas’ preschool programs received a big boost from recommendations of the 1983 Arkansas Education Standards Committee chaired by Hillary Clinton. Those policy changes were helped change Arkansas’ education system from one of the worst to one of the best nationally. The Committee’s reforms, approved in September 1983 in a special legislative session called by then-Governor Bill Clinton, expanded quality pre-K and made Arkansas a national leader in early education. With bipartisan support, Arkansas now ranks 3rd nationwide for access to early education beginning at age three.

NIEER has worked with the State of Arkansas to evaluate the educational effects of ABC preschools in both the short- and long-term. The Elementary School Journal recently published our study finding impacts at kindergarten entry of attending the program for one year at age four. In a separate follow-up study, we found persistent positive impacts on achievement and a trend toward reduced grade repetition through 3rd grade, as shown here.

Readers interested in my recommendations for how Arkansas can continue to advance in early education are invited to watch my Clinton School talk here

You see Arkansas is not only a story about how policy reforms can persist, but also how they can stall. The Great Recession and its aftermath hurt preschool funding in many states, including Arkansas.  With inflation-adjusted public funding in decline, the ability of ABC preschools to provide a high quality education has been hurt. Fortunately, Arkansas took advantage of a federal Preschool Expansion Grant that helps the state offer preschool to more children and raise quality by, for example, supporting parenting education for children. Unfortunately, this federal program   is not large enough to address all of Arkansas’ funding needs, and not every state receives a grant.  Future federal support to states for preschool quality enhancement and expansion is an important issue that every candidate for President should address.

Indeed, quality early education need not be a partisan political issue. In Arkansas — and across the nation–quality early education receives bipartisan support. Indiana Governor Mike Pence, now the Republican vice-presidential nominee, championed development of his state’s first state-funded, pre-kindergarten grant program in 2014. So as the Presidential Campaign unfolds and state and local races heat up as well, voters should press all candidates about how they plan to support early learning and development.  We look forward to robust debates across the country about whose ideas will best provide a solid foundation for learning and healthy development to all of our children in their early years.


The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at the Graduate School of Education, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, conducts and disseminates independent research and analysis to inform early childhood education policy.