Outsourcing the ABCs

December 28, 2003

RENOVATIONS and portable classrooms still needed to make all-day kindergarten a reality by 2007 will cost Maryland and its school districts $163 million, a statewide task force estimated this month. Instead of letting the expense, or the space shortage, become an impediment, schools should explore cost-saving alternatives, including privatization.

Though there's plenty of resistance to the idea, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick is encouraging superintendents to consider contracting with child care programs to provide prekindergarten or kindergarten services.

As long as there's no compromise in educational quality, and kindergarten isn't turned into a voucher program, such partnerships could be good for the kids, the child care industry and the public schools.

The details would matter: The preschools would have to obtain state accreditation and use approved curricula. The school districts would have to supply some combination of staff, training and materials, along with firm oversight. If they're to stand in as kindergartens, participating preschools would have to invest in their employees' credentials because many of their workers are not certified teachers.

The concept of such privatization is not new: A state-funded prekindergarten program in New York since 1997 has allowed 4-year-olds to attend nonpublic preschools.

Maryland has also been moving toward greater collaboration: Since 1998, many nonpublic child care providers voluntarily have sought training from the Department of Education to help ensure that children arrive at school "ready to learn." Some have sought state accreditation and adopted Maryland learning guidelines. Notably, the state's private nursery schools have had an excellent record of producing youngsters with school-ready skills, state test results show.

Research confirms the long-term value of improving children's earliest academic foundations. It's finally affecting public policy, and pushing the child care industry to a crossroads: As the free public schools launch all-day kindergarten for 5-year-olds and prekindergarten programs for all at-risk 4-year-olds, some child care programs will lose customers. Filling a need for crowded schools may help some survive.

The school districts are justifiably concerned about union reactions and programmatic control, but where there's the will, creative leaders who are committed to improving early childhood education will find a way.

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