Coming around to early learning

Glendening: Governor adds funds for preschool programs, but needs nudging on full-day kindergartens.

January 13, 2001

EVER SO slowly, Gov. Parris N. Glendening is becoming a supporter of early childhood education -- a real supporter, not someone who talks a good game and then reneges on his commitments at the last minute.

This evolution has a way to go, but the governor's $30 million commitment to pieces of the early learning puzzle marks a major advance.

Legislative backing for this initiative is strong. The governor may have to enlarge his early education package to satisfy demands of senators and delegates.

His announcement of $11 million for preschool programs and $19 million in early school block grants helps turn attention to this critical stage for youngsters. The prime learning time for children starts well before first grade. Sadly, too many students arrive for that first class unprepared. Some have never opened a book.

That's why it makes sense to turn day-care centers into education sites. The experimental Judith P. Hoyer Learning Centers, which will receive $8 million, are designed to showcase the best teaching methods for preschoolers.

Additionally, the governor recognized the need to certify day-care facilities as early learning centers and to upgrade day-care workers' teaching skills.

Mr. Glendening hesitated, though, to support his own board of education, which wants to phase in full-day kindergarten. That's a logical progression, backed by growing evidence that more school hours for 5-year-olds pay off handsomely in getting them ready -- and eager -- to learn.

Instead, the governor is seeking block grants for whatever K-3 improvements each jurisdiction wants to make. This pot of cash isn't large enough to do the job right.

Further, lack of accountability measures fails to ensure effective use of this money. Some counties, for instance, could pay for existing special-education programs with the state's cash, or meet other current expenses. That's not the intended purpose, but it could be the unintended result.

Legislative leaders can put considerable pressure on the governor to add to this $19 million account. They can specify more clearly how this money may be used. And they can continue to educate the governor on the importance of full-day kindergarten, especially in high-poverty neighborhoods.

A year ago, Mr. Glendening refused to make early childhood learning a priority. In the end, he reluctantly gave legislators a portion of what they sought. This year, the governor already has met them halfway. By session's end, let's hope he's an even bigger supporter of this worthwhile effort.

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