THERE WAS A time, not that long ago, when a broad, bipartisan consensus existed to expand our state’s nationally acclaimed 4-year-old kindergarten program to serve all poor children whose parents want them to attend.
Although Circuit Judge Thomas Cooper pushed legislators, temporarily, into high gear, that support existed even before he ruled in 2005 that our constitution obliged us to do more to give poor children the jump-start they need to succeed in school. And it existed largely for the same reason the judge focused on early childhood education: Brain research shows a child’s intellectual capacity is largely set before he ever reaches kindergarten. Poor children are far less likely than middle-class children to receive the sort of brain stimulation they need at home. High-quality child development programs can increase that capacity, and our state’s 4K program has won national note for doing just that.
And the financial payoff comes fast. Children who start kindergarten ready to learn are less likely to have to repeat a grade — which costs more than sending them to kindergarten to start with. Children who don’t have to repeat grades are much less likely to drop out of high school, which means they’re much less likely to become criminals or deadbeats, and more likely to become productive, taxpaying citizens who don’t perpetuate the cycle of poverty and dependency.
Lawmakers quickly agreed to a two-year “pilot program” in eight districts that had sued the state, eventually expanding it to all 37 plaintiff districts. Practically everybody agreed that this was a phase-in, to be expanded statewide in a year, two tops. To the extent that there was a debate, it was over whether to include private child-care centers (we do) and whether to make our eventual statewide 4K program available just to poor children or to all children.
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Since then, the research supporting 4K in general and our 4K programs in particular did not suddenly get reversed, or even murky. But the momentum shifted, and then the recession hit. And so here we are, nearly a decade later, still running a “pilot” program that benefits about 5,200 of the 41,000 low-income 4-year-olds in the state.
There are lots of questions worth asking about how best to operate a 4K program. Should we continue to offer it in both public and private settings? Should we continue with 6.5-hour days or shorten them? Should we maintain the 180-day program or make it year-round? Are the student-teacher ratios appropriate? Are the educational requirements for teachers right?
The Senate answered those questions by adding $26 million to the existing program, more than doubling the budget to $46 million. This would allow the state to serve another 8,200 children in the next 17 poorest districts. Supporters hope eventually to cover eligible students in 30 more districts.
If the House doesn’t like those answers, then it needs to propose an alternative when it amends the Senate budget plan this week.
What it doesn’t need to do is oppose the idea of expanding 4K, and doing it now. Although our tax revenue is still below pre-recession levels, it is recovering, and the Senate was able to allocate $26 million to the expansion plan. Without raising taxes. Without making draconian cuts to other programs.
There’s no good reason the House can’t find a way to do likewise.