A 14th Year of School?

Posted Oct. 10, 2008, at 6:42 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 3:25 a.m.

In 1998, 27 schools in Maine offered pre-kindergarten programs, also known as 4-year-old programs. By 2002, 78 schools offered the program, and this year, 130 schools are operating pre-K classes. Nationally, the concept has gained acceptance with proponents leaning on the large body of evidence that shows investing in children in the first five years of life yields substantial developmental advantages.

The movement toward pre-K may prove to be a wise investment because it reduces the costs of students who are poorly prepared for school. But if pre-K programs become universal in Maine, a 14th year of public education will essentially have been added to the state and local tab without a comprehensive discussion on the issue.

Jaci Holmes, a legislative liaison at the state Department of Education, says for almost 25 years, state law has allowed schools to offer pre-K programs. The state reimburses schools for the children who attend these programs as it does for those in other grades. Currently, the state allocates $4.1 million for these programs, which is matched by $3.8 million in local funds.

One area school superintendent candidly admitted that his district’s two pre-K programs are lucrative. The district offers two half-day programs, for which it hired one full-time teacher, and receives state subsidies for the 36 children who attend. The superintendent predicts that pre-K programs will become universal because they are educationally sound and provide an important service to parents.

In order to get state subsidies, the school must get state approval for the program. Approval requires having a certified teacher and completing an application that shows the program’s curriculum complies with early learning guidelines, which are similar to the Maine Learning Results.

The curriculum often is the result of educational “push down,” as educators call it. What was once taught in kindergarten is now taught in pre-K. What was once taught in first grade is now taught in kindergarten.

But it seems that whether or not a 4-year-old can count to 10 is less a factor in justifying the programs than what is going on — or not going on — in the child’s home. Homes where education is valued — where parents regularly read to their children, play games with them, have time to sit around the table and introduce them to new concepts and skills — are going to produce children ready for school with or without pre-K.

Since too many homes don’t or can’t provide this support, society has intervened, creating such programs as Head Start. Children whose families are not eligible for Head Start may benefit from pre-K.

Pre-K is often more cost-effective than kindergarten, since most operate just four days a week, and many partner with existing community groups, like a YMCA or social service agency.

Educators who sing their praises say the program teaches children basic social skills and persuades them that school can be fun — which in turn makes the next year easier. The state is wise to not mandate pre-K, which means local school boards must make the case to taxpayers to add the program. Another such test comes when a district with pre-K merges with one that does not offer the program.

While pre-K has obvious benefits, discussions about these benefits and the costs of the program must come before further expansion.

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