LITTLE ROCK — Democratic candidate for governor Mike Ross on Wednesday unveiled a plan to boost funding for early childhood education with the goal of making it accessible to every 4-year-old in the state.

The former congressman said that if elected he will push for a phased-in $37 million increase in annual funding for the Arkansas Better Chance program. He said his plans calls for the program’s budget to be increased over 10 years, or sooner if growth in state revenues allow.

"The advantages of pre-kindergarten are clear," Ross said during a news conference at Fair Park Early Childhood Center in Little Rock, where he stood surrounded by 4-year-old students. "Children who attend high-quality pre-K are less likely to be held back a grade, less likely to need special education or remediation, and more likely to graduate high school.

"They also have higher earnings as adults and are less likely to become dependent on welfare or involved with the criminal justice system, meaning investments in pre-K now would help save taxpayers money later," he said.

ABC’s funding has been flat since 2008, and currently only about half of Arkansas 4-year-olds are enrolled, Ross said.

He said he initially wants to make the program — which now targets children from families with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level — available to families earning less than 300 percent of the poverty level, or $59,370 for a family of three, at no charge.

Eventually, Ross said he wants to make the program available at half of the current cost to families with incomes between 300 and 400 percent of the poverty level and available at the full cost to families with incomes of 400 percent of the poverty level or higher. The full cost is about $140 per week.

"Ultimately, I would like Arkansas to make its ABC pre-K program accessible to every 4-year-old child free of charge, and my plan is a solid first step in achieving that goal," Ross said.

Asked if had any plans to make early childhood education accessible to 2- and 3-year-olds, Ross said, "I recognize the importance for the younger ages, and we want to address that as well, but we’ve got to start somewhere."

Ross previously outlined plans to phase in a $575 million state income tax cut and a $40 million cut to the tax that manufacturers pay for repairing machinery. He said Wednesday that education, tax cuts and job creation are his top three issues and that he does not place any one of them above the others in importance.

Ross also said he will roll out other education proposals later in the campaign, but boosting pre-K is "the big-ticket item."

After the news conference, Ross read the book "A Sick Day for Amos McGee" to the children. When he was finished, he donated the book to the school.

Former Congressman Asa Hutchinson and Little Rock businessman Curtis Coleman are seeking the GOP nomination for governor. Ross’ Democratic primary opponent is substitute teacher Lynette Bryant.

Hutchinson said in a statement Wednesday that Ross’ proposal is "a classic example of overpromising in an election year and it is irresponsible. Gov. (Mike) Beebe has not been able to fully fund the current program and we should not be promising a bigger government program when we haven’t met our current needs."

Coleman said in a statement that Oklahoma began providing free preschool for all 4-year-olds in 1998 and that although Oklahoma taxpayers "pay mightily" for the program, children in the state score below the national average in reading.

"Mr. Ross’ goals are laudable, but his plan is not supported by real-world experience," Coleman said.