Inside the Capitol

Monday, December 13, 2004

Don't Rush Pre-Kindergarten

SANTA FE – Numerous meetings are being held around the state this month to consider Gov. Bill Richardson’s ambitious proposal for pre-kindergarten programs for four-year olds.
Gov. Richardson will ask the Legislature for nearly $10 million to get the programs started, but some lawmakers are asking whether New Mexico may be biting off more than it can chew at this time.
Requirements and sanctions contained in the No Child Left Behind Act have states scurrying to keep pace with constantly increasing standards for student achievement. One of the solutions to meet the rising goals is to bring children into the learning process earlier so they will test better.
But that solution has early childhood educators asking many questions. Some contend that since 90 percent of a child’s brain growth occurs between the ages of 0 and 5, that it isn’t very smart for 90 percent of public spending for children to be after age five.
Others ask whether it is academic education that children really need at these early ages while they still are developing. They argue that taxpayer money is better spent after children are ready for academic learning rather than pushing it on them before they are ready.
One of our children is a case in point. We put him in programs for three- and four-year-olds and then in kindergarten. But when he was age-ready for first grade, he still was not developmentally ready to sit for long periods of instruction. After another year of kindergarten, he caught up quickly and excelled academically throughout graduate and post-graduate education.
The main consideration seems to be whether the very high investment to add another grade to the school curriculum could be better spent strengthening education programs at higher grade levels. New Mexico already has spent many years phasing in kindergarten in all school districts and had to ask voters for additional money in last month’s election to finish building classrooms for all those students.
Think New Mexico, a think tank composed of leading residents of our state, worked hard for full-day kindergartens for all five-year-olds. It now is advocating for pre-kindergarten education and realizes that money is a major obstacle in reaching that goal.
The organization has issued a report suggesting how to pay for a pre-kindergarten grade level without raising taxes. It wants to re-allocate resources from administrative and support services into classrooms.
The recommendations are sound. New Mexico ranks last in the nation in the percentage of public education expenditures used for instruction. Think New Mexico proposes to remedy that by taking advantage of economies of scale through cooperative purchasing among districts and streamlining administrative duplication, restructuring of districts, revolutionizing energy efficiency, and re-engineering the state’s new Public Education Department.
The total amount of savings possible would be $95.8 million. The solutions involve much more of a centralized state school system. The tradition in New Mexico and the nation is for locally-controlled school districts.
In New Mexico, those districts are operated almost entirely on state money because of lawsuits requiring every student be backed by an equal amount of funding regardless of the financial resources of the district. New Mexico was a leader in education equity. All states will soon have equalization formulas similar to ours.
Eventually that may mean more state control and economies of scale. But it won’t come without a great amount of deliberation, controversy and pain.
And neither will pre-kindergarten education. While we are occupied with trying to find the money for this new grade level, perhaps it would be wise to talk a little longer about its effects and implementation, while monitoring the experience of other states that are starting down this road.
Early indications are that research results on the cost-benefit of this approach are unclear and that initial programs have resulted in many lawsuits. We don’t need school money being spent on legal disputes.


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