Carroll schools oppose kindergarten mandate

Officials devise strategy to counter state mandate

November 18, 2003|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Carroll County school officials hope to join with local legislators to reverse a key piece of the $1.3 billion Thornton Commission education reforms and give school boards across Maryland more control over all-day kindergarten programs.

The initiative - allowing local officials to determine whom to enroll and how to do it - is aimed at rolling back a requirement that all Maryland kindergartners be in full-day programs by the 2007-2008 school year.

But even as Carroll school board member C. Scott Stone prepares to meet with legislators on strategies for battling the state mandate in the 2004 General Assembly, county school officials are refining a kindergarten proposal they hope to present within a month to state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

That proposal would allow the Carroll school system to offer full-day kindergarten only to children whose test scores indicate they struggle with basic skills that are the foundation for kindergarten instruction. Carroll schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker, Stone and school board President Susan G. Holt first discussed the plan in September with Grasmick.

"It's not dueling fronts," Ecker said of the legislative and behind-the-scenes efforts. "They're going hand in hand."

A draft of Ecker's all-day kindergarten alternative was shared with parents last month. It called for spending $50,000 on school-readiness tests that would assess preschoolers' phonemic awareness, letter identification, ability to hear sounds in words, concepts about print, math skills and social and personal behavior.

Stone will meet Dec. 3 with the county's legislative delegation for what Sen. Larry E. Haines, leader of the all-Republican group, is calling "a strategy session."

"If the [school] board has a plan they can live with, we're going to work with them to try to accomplish their goal as a delegation," he said. "We need a plan that's at least not a mandate and is more of a local option."

During the last legislative session, Carroll school officials sought an exemption from the General Assembly, arguing that an expensive all-day kindergarten program wasn't needed for all children. But the narrow, Carroll-specific bill didn't draw enough support for committee approval, so school system and delegation leaders changed tactics.

"Last year, legislation was filed with the word `exemption,' and that was part of the problem," Holt said. "Now, we're seeking modification of the law that would give school systems local control."

In her frequent public comments on the subject, Holt emphasizes that Carroll officials support the idea of all-day kindergarten and agree that some children need the extra schooling to better prepare for first grade. Nearly 80 kindergartners are enrolled this year in all-day programs at three Carroll County elementary schools.

But Carroll school officials object to the state requiring the program for all children without providing enough money to pay for the additional classroom space, teachers and supplies that the expanded program would need. The annual cost of the full-day kindergarten program in Carroll County would be about $2 million, with one-time costs totaling about $4.8 million, school officials have said.

Meanwhile, Ecker and school board members hope that their testing-based alternative to all-day kindergarten will show Grasmick that local school systems can ensure all children are ready for first grade without requiring all kindergartners to stay in school all day. They hope the state superintendent will support their legislative efforts to modify the mandate.

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