Inside the Capitol

Monday, November 15, 2004

Gov Wants to Educate 4-Yr Olds

SANTA FE Gov. Bill Richardson is proposing to boldly go where wiser men know better than to tread. Pardon the mixed metaphor but it is illustrative of the mixed feelings surrounding the governor’s new initiative for the pre-kindergarten education of four-year olds.
Although the governor and Lt. Gov. Diane Denish are to be commended for their efforts to combat New Mexico’s poor literacy and achievement rates, they are running into questions about whether this is the best way to do it.
Some educators argue that scarce resources would be used better for strengthening existing education programs. Increased achievement standards and testing are demanding quick results. The increased state and federal financial support of schools that was to come with increased standards hasn’t completely materialized.
In addition Gov. Richardson has pledged to increase teacher salaries from near last in the nation to the regional average in a rapid time period. Moving on so quickly to a new and very expensive initiative significantly dilutes resources available for already established priorities.
The financial lesson learned from extending public school education down to the kindergarten level for five-year-olds should be very fresh in everyone’s minds. The state has been working at fully implementing kindergartens for over two decades. The big push of the last few years has been a drain on school budgets.
And it is continuing, with a $5 million statewide bond issue, passed by voters earlier this month, to provide kindergarten classrooms for school districts that haven’t been able to afford them. And that even includes the Albuquerque Public Schools.
If we are just now finding classrooms for all kindergarteners, where are we going to find them for an entire new grade added into public schools? And how will we pay for them?
Educators disagree on the value of trying to educate four-year-olds. We know it is important for children entering school to be ready to learn. And we know that some children haven’t had the enrichment experiences necessary to make them ready.
But readiness also is developmental and varies with each child. Some children are ready to read at four, while others aren’t ready to read yet at six, despite a rich background. And when they are ready, their learning curve usually is steep, allowing them to catch up quickly.
The governor’s pre-kindergarten initiative not only treads on existing school programs and resources and on taxpayers’ toes, it also is upsetting some parents who aren’t ready to give up their children to institutional settings at age five, much less age four.
Kindergarten programs started out being voluntary, and they still are, but parents report strong pressures in some districts to put their five-year-olds in school and some state lawmakers are beginning to suggest that kindergarten attendance be mandatory.
There also is conflict with existing pre-kindergarten offerings for children. Approximately half of four-year-olds are in such programs. Some of them are in programs for which their parents pay. Some are in state or federally-funded day care or Head Start programs.
These programs are working just fine and have found space. Private programs often are in churches. That will become another bone of contention when the government starts setting standards for employees and curriculum and starts wanting financial records.
And that will begin very soon. Even though this initiative is to begin as a public-private partnership with existing pre-kindergarten programs, the state will immediately want to start setting standards for schools that want to participate – and maybe for all schools serving four-year- olds, whether they want to participate in the state program or not.
The future for the state in the education of four-year-olds is full of uncertainties. Reportedly about one-quarter of the states are trying it and most are having problems, financially and with difficulties they hadn’t anticipated.
The state should wait awhile on this one so it can attend to other pressing needs first, while providing further details to the doubters.


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