Kindergarten blues

November 03, 2003

TO THWART Maryland's law requiring every school district to offer all-day kindergarten by 2007, opponents now are trying to hitch its fate to the state's budget trouble.

All-day kindergarten is one pricey piece of the Thornton tab coming due that could be done without, they claim, shrewdly trying to recruit onto their bandwagon lawmakers who might be desperate enough to balance the state's shortfall by breaking their promise to invest in Maryland kids. "Who needs it anyway?" some have added, spraying the debate with expensive perfume: "Certainly not our children."

This is a bold attempt to substitute rhetoric for research, and ideology for sound budget management practices. A five-year-old could see through the attempt to weasel out of doing what's right.

As long ago as 1970, and as recently as this year, studies of all-day kindergarten have confirmed its value: Strong all-day programs give 5-year-olds early and fast starts at mastering the literacy and computation foundation blocks they'll use for the rest of their academic careers, just as they're most ready developmentally to learn. Combined with good follow-up instruction in later grades, the effects can be long-lasting, putting children on a trajectory for advancement.

Great benefit has been seen among poorer children starting school with low skills or not speaking English. In some cases, these students have matched or outperformed their better-off peers who attended half-day kindergarten or private day care.

But while all-day kindergarten is often used to narrow the achievement gap, that doesn't make it a welfare program.

In fact, a continuing Montgomery County longitudinal study of kindergarten students suggests there are benefits for every 5-year-old. Students from homes that emphasized early learning can and do master the basics in half-day programs, but with the right instruction and rich programs, do even better with a full day. So this largely well-off county plans to expand all-day kindergarten to give its children a head start at meeting federal No Child Left Behind law mandates for student progress. Other counties should follow suit.

Meanwhile, the opponents need to understand that untying the all-day kindergarten knot could unravel all of Thornton: The formula used to divide up the aid would have to be recalculated, leading to more squabbles and, quite likely, lawsuits.

It is also a ridiculous notion to presume that resolving the state's financial mess is as easy as chipping away at the less popular pieces of the Thornton school aid package. If policymakers were serious about reducing its size and still claiming with straight faces that they support Maryland schools, they'd assemble educational experts and examine the merits of each district's proposed Thornton spending plans. When the shouting was over, it might yield a thoughtful compromise that had some basis beyond baldfaced politics.

Guaranteed: Experts would tell them that the bang for the buck is in early childhood learning and programs like all-day kindergarten.

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