- Associated Press - Saturday, August 13, 2016

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - The Arkansas Republican Party’s decision to remove any mention of pre-kindergarten from its platform gives Democrats a new line of attack on what they view as a popular issue. It also may give some leverage to supporters of the program as they eye another push to boost funding for the program next year.

The platform change at the state GOP convention earlier this month came after some delegates cited fears prekindergarten could become mandatory in the state, rather than voluntary, according to the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

“Kindergarten used to be voluntary, and now it’s mandatory,” said Vickey Boozman of Cave Springs, the delegate who first spoke against the paragraph on pre-k, the paper reported.

The move comes months before an election where Democrats hope for some rebounds after a series of elections that have turned the state solidly Republican. It also follows an unsuccessful attempt by Democrats in the Legislature to increase funding for the program, which has remained relatively flat for the past several years.

House Democrats were quick to pounce on the platform change, accusing the state GOP of putting politics before children.

“Arkansas House Democrats know that the children and families of Arkansas must be our first priority,” the Democratic caucus said in a statement last week. “We pledge to redouble our efforts to build a strong foundation for our children, not undermine their future.”

There’s no sign that Republican hopeful Donald Trump’s polling woes nationally will make Arkansas competitive in the presidential race this fall. But state Democrats hope it could still spill over to a handful of legislative races, and they see pre-k as a popular program that can help in connecting to voters in those districts.

An effort in April to increase funding for the Arkansas Better Chance program from $111 million to $121 million failed before the Joint Budget Committee, despite pleas from Democrats. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson last year set aside $3 million in additional one-time money for the program.

“This is a minuscule amount of money and we’re talking about our kids,” Democratic Sen. Linda Chesterfield said in April. “Our kids continue to start out behind. We know if our kids start out behind, they stay behind.”

The criticism over the Republicans’ platform change is part of a larger argument Democrats are making in Arkansas ahead of the November election and next year’s legislative session. They’re pointing to a list of services that either have been reduced or aren’t being fully funded while the Republican-led Legislature has approved tax cuts Democrats argue aren’t helping lower-income Arkansans.

With Hutchinson eyeing another round of income tax cuts when the Legislature returns in January, expect Democrats to remind Republicans of their platform change when pre-k funding comes up.

Hutchinson hasn’t said whether he’ll support an increase in pre-k funding next year, and said the platform change removed language that was unclear on its intent. He said the change doesn’t change the support he’s had for the program, touting the one-time funding and additional federal funding secured for it since he’s taken office.

“It’s been supported in a great way, in a bipartisan way with both Democrats and Republicans,” Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson’s argument has been that actions speak louder than words on support for the program. Democrats say they’re going to hold him to that when the Legislature returns next year.

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Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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