Officials from Carroll County and other jurisdictions across Maryland say they are pleased that their complaints about state-mandated all-day kindergarten have gained attention at the highest levels of state government.
State leaders have not agreed on a plan to address counties' complaints that school systems could be forced to drain their coffers for an unwanted program. But legislators say Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s discussion on all-day kindergarten with legislative leaders at a recent dinner could signal growing debate on the issue.
"I think there will be intense discussion about it because there has to be," said state Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, a Republican who attended the meeting with Ehrlich and who represents Eastern Shore counties that oppose all-day mandates. "We just don't have the money to pay for all the additional classrooms that would be required."
While jurisdictions across the state have questioned the requirement to pay for space for the program, Carroll officials have campaigned more aggressively than most against the requirement. The county's delegation introduced a bill at this year's General Assembly session that would have exempted Carroll from the all-day mandate, which is part of the state's Thornton Plan for school funding.
The bill failed to clear a committee vote, but several influential legislators said they would like to see it revived in some form. And Carroll legislators say they are thrilled the issue has gained wider attention.
"We're absolutely encouraged to hear that it's being discussed at higher levels," said Del. Susan W. Krebs, a Republican who represents South Carroll.
Ehrlich spokesman Greg Massoni said the governor's meeting last week with legislative leaders produced no conclusions but should set the stage for discussions before and into next year's General Assembly session.
"We wanted the issue to be brought up so it could be discussed in the legislature because it is their mandate," Massoni said yesterday.
The Maryland Association of Counties estimates that the additional classrooms required for all-day kindergarten would cost about $140 million, none of which the state has agreed to pay. The Thornton Plan says all schools must implement all-day kindergarten by the 2007-2008 academic year.
"I don't know what the solution is but it is heartening to know our concerns are receiving the attention they deserve," said Marilyn J. Praisner, a Montgomery County councilwoman and president of the association of counties.
Praisner, who served on the Thornton Commission, said she sees the value of all-day kindergarten but believes many counties need more time to find the space and money to accommodate it.
Massoni said Ehrlich has heard from several county executives who fear they will be unable to meet the Thornton deadlines. He said some jurisdictions want and need all-day kindergarten now but added, "I think it's safe to say we need to work with the county executives who say they will have trouble meeting the deadlines."
Extensions might be called for, added Del. George C. Edwards, a Garrett County Republican and House minority leader who also attended the meeting with Ehrlich.
"I think from the student's point of view, it's probably good to have all-day kindergarten for everybody," Edwards said. "But on the other hand, it's not just a state issue, it's a local issue, and locals ought to have a little input into what to do and what not to do."
Carroll officials argue that all schools don't need all-day kindergarten.
"There's no research that shows all-day kindergarten is beneficial for all students," said Susan Holt, president of the county's school board. "I think some people are starting to say let's look at the cost, and some parents are saying, `No, we don't want our kids out of the house that long every day.' "
Holt said local school boards should be allowed to decide whether they need all-day kindergarten. Carroll probably would continue offering all-day instruction in some schools but not in others.
Legislators from wealthier counties such as Carroll say their pupils would not benefit as much from all-day kindergarten as pupils in poorer districts. Others, such as Stoltzfus, say the poorer districts they represent cannot afford the mandate.
But state school officials have argued that all-day kindergarten would help all school systems.
Carroll school administrators estimate that they would need 40 new classrooms if the nearly 2,000 half-day kindergartners begin staying all day. They would need to nearly double the number of teachers and kindergarten assistants on staff or let kindergarten class rosters balloon well beyond the 20 pupils to which county school officials prefer to limit them. School board members repeatedly have raised concerns about the issue at recent meetings and say an exemption to the mandate is atop their wish list for the next legislative session.
Holt said legislators cannot wait much longer on the exemption issue because counties such as Carroll will have to adjust their budget now to meet the 2007 requirements.
Others said concerns about all-day kindergarten must be viewed in the context of all the mandates facing local school systems, which include new state testing standards and requirements set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
"When you look at all of these things, there just isn't enough from a financial perspective to deal with them," Praisner said.