Kids come up short competing with military

September 07, 2000|By Michael Olesker

ON THE FIRST day of class, Dr. Nancy S. Grasmick climbed aboard a school bus and sat next to a second-grader from Cecil Elementary School, near North and Greenmount avenues. The little boy read every street sign and billboard they passed. A bright young fellow, Grasmick declared yesterday in the first happy blush of a new academic year. Now, if everybody gets very lucky, the governor of Maryland will show he is just as smart as this second-grader.

It could happen. And then, if we really want to defy the odds, maybe we could expect the same from Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush. They are running for president and sound like Gov. Parris N. Glendening. They are all in favor of education. Isn't this grand! They all love children. Aren't we delighted! But they all have other priorities. At times like this, don't we feel a little bit duped?

Grasmick, the state school superintendent, wants to increase the length of the school day for kindergarten children. This is strictly a no-brainer. There are thousands of little girls and boys, with minds hungry to soak up information and bodies brimming with energy - and we send them home after a half-day of school, so they can watch television and eat Twinkies and put their brains on hold while awaiting mom's return from work.

Grasmick wants to start all-day kindergarten in the state's public schools. She says she has gotten marvelous feedback from educators in every jurisdiction in Maryland. They love the idea and cannot wait to get started. They have seen the reading and math scores of the past few decades, which look like suicide notes for a culture. They took note of last week's SAT results, which caused no dancing in the streets. They think all-day kindergarten would give children a head start in developing their learning skills.

And now they await word from the one person who could stand in the way: Parris Glendening, who wishes to be known as the education governor, until he examines details.

All-day kindergarten would cost the state about $63 million a year. This is a lot of money to individuals, but not necessarily to the state of Maryland, or to the nation in such a fat economic era. One study shows that for every $1 spent on early childhood programs, the government reduces costs by $7 for special education, remedial teaching in later years and social services. The $63 million is also "less than the state budget surplus," Grasmick points out.

Also, never to be minimized, it is less than the cost of an F-22 fighter.

Grasmick doesn't make this comparison, but maybe somebody should make it loudly enough to be heard by Gore and Bush. It was Bush's father who presided over the end of the Cold War, which was supposed to make a big difference in everybody's lives.

The Cold War ended roughly a decade ago, and that was accompanied by much talk of a so-called peace dividend. The peace dividend was so simple that even a second-grader on a school bus could figure it out. It meant that money previously spent on missile systems and nuclear bombs and huge shows of troop force against the Russians and the Chinese could be spent to rebuild American neighborhoods and public schools allowed to decay during our Cold War frenzy.

And yet, in the race for the White House, we hear the most astonishing talk from the mouths of those wishing to be elected. They say the American military is not sufficiently funded. They say the country could be vulnerable. They imply that it is America's shame that our fighting forces have become economic afterthoughts.

Here is what they do not say: While public school systems such as Maryland's have to grovel for $63 million to educate children, the Pentagon will casually spend $3.9 billion for 10 F-22 fighters. This, in mathematics many school children can compute, is $390 million per plane, or more than six times as much, per plane, as the funding needed for an entire state's all-day kindergarten program.

And that's just for openers.

The United States spends nearly $300 billion a year on defense. That's more than Russia, China, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, North Korea, Serbia, Cuba and Sudan -put together. Maybe those nations have decided to put some of their money into all-day kindergartens.

Adjusted for inflation, the United States still spends about 95 percent as much for defense as it did during the Cold War - even though that war has been over for a decade. Where is that peace dividend about which we once heard so much? And when do military tax dollars begin to be converted to local peacetime spending?

"I don't know what the governor will do," Grasmick said yesterday. She was talking about funding for all-day kindergarten. "I haven't had a hint from him. He has other priorities. But, in terms of benefits to children, there is no dispute. Experts in brain research all say this age is the time to reach children.

"It's simply the right thing to do," she said. "If we can spend millions to build ballparks, we can spend millions on the brains of these kids. That's what's going to define this century: those who use their brains and those who will be unemployable. We have to adjust to that right away."

And, a decade after the end of the Cold War, and all the scary language that accompanied it, our political leaders have to make their own adjustments.

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