Schools chief plans more pre-K classes

Boston to reshuffle funds to comply with Maryland law

March 22, 2007|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,sun reporter

Moving to bring the 2007-2008 city schools budget into compliance with state law, interim schools chief Charlene Cooper Boston yesterday said she planned to reshuffle budget money to provide prekindergarten for more low-income city 4-year-olds.

The state's so-called Thornton legislation requires that school systems offer prekindergarten to all low-income 4-year-olds by the 2007-2008 school year, and it is providing millions of dollars for them to do so.

In the budget proposal before the school board, Boston included $820,000 to add prekindergarten classes at eight schools. But in a master plan submitted to the state last year outlining how its Thornton dollars would be spent, the system said it intended to add prekindergarten at 16 schools during the 2007-2008 school year.

Facing criticism for that decision, Boston said yesterday that she will fulfill the commitment to add all 16 programs, but she is trying to determine where in the budget she can make cuts to get another $820,000.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, a plaintiff in a long-running lawsuit accusing the state of unlawfully underfunding the city schools, estimates that up to 1,550 of 6,500 children eligible for prekindergarten each year are not enrolled. Adding classes at eight schools would serve only about 160 of them, advocates said.

"This is not even close," said Bebe Verdery, director of the ACLU's Education Reform Project, at a budget forum Tuesday night. She told system officials that they must adjust the budget to offer sufficient prekindergarten classes.

"It is not optional," she said. "If a fifth-grader comes to you and says, `I would like to join the fifth grade,' you have to take them. It's the same thing with pre-K."

Children are not legally required to attend school until they are 5 years old, but research overwhelmingly shows that academic preparation should start earlier.

Five years ago, the ACLU's lawsuit led to the passage of the Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools Act, commonly known as Thornton. When fully phased in next school year, Thornton will increase education spending statewide by $1.3 billion, including more than $250 million for the city -- $85 million of it coming next school year. In exchange, systems must implement a series of reforms, including universal full-day kindergarten and half-day prekindergarten for all low-income, homeless and foster children.

At Tuesday's budget forum, school board member Kalman "Buzzy" Hettleman said he agreed "100 percent" with Verdery's comments. He said he wishes he had known sooner that the system was not going to follow its plan to add prekindergarten at 16 schools. At this late date, he doubted that the system would be able to make the necessary changes to the budget, but Boston said yesterday that the changes can be made.

Hettleman said he might not vote to approve the budget when it comes before the school board next week if administrators don't first give him a plan documenting how they plan to phase in the prekindergarten requirement. He said he has requested such a plan from administrators, but they have not given him one.

Administrators gave mixed messages in their response to Verdery and Hettleman. Boston, whose background is in early childhood education, said the state has not given the system enough money, calling the prekindergarten provision of Thornton an "unfunded mandate."

But a few minutes later, Boston's chief academic officer, Linda Chinnia, said that the waiting lists for prekindergarten are not long. She indicated that the eight additional pre-kindergarten programs should be enough -- or close to enough -- to meet the demand when private community programs offering prekindergarten are taken into account.

Verdery said that many city families have not enrolled their children in prekindergarten because they do not know it is available to them free. She argued that the school system needs to do a better job informing families of what they are legally entitled to.

William Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education, said yesterday that the state is monitoring all 24 school systems in the state to ensure that they comply with the Thornton requirements. "We will request that Baltimore City provide us with a report on how they will make certain that children will not miss the services to which they are entitled under the law," he said.

When Boston proposed her budget to the school board last week, it included $420,000 for the eight new prekindergarten programs, enough to hire eight teachers. But Hettleman pointed out that each prekindergarten class must have a teacher and an aide, and more funding is needed to reconfigure classrooms to serve such young children.

In a revised proposal this week, Boston increased the allocation to $660,000 for teacher and aide salaries, plus $160,000 for startup costs. By early next week, she said, she will have revised the proposal again.

For the current school year, the system added 17 prekindergarten programs. In 126 classes citywide, Boston said, the system goes beyond the state's requirement of half-day prekindergarten by offering full-day programs, under the theory that working parents need child care all day, and they would not enroll their children otherwise. The city has 53 half-day prekindergarten classes.

Verdery urged the school board not to scale back on the full-day programs to fund prekindergarten at more schools.

"We believe the state should fund full-day pre-K," she said in an interview. "If they want the children to be ready, they need to set up programs that meet the parents' needs. The half-day programs are having trouble keeping the classes full, but the full-day programs have waiting lists."

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

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