Inside the Capitol

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

1-10 Pre-Kindergarten

SANTA FE – Ready or not, here we come. It appears Gov. Bill Richardson is heading at full steam toward initiating pre-kindergarten classes for New Mexico’s four-year-olds.
The idea is well-intentioned and well-thought-out in many ways. But after the trouble New Mexico has had implementing full day kindergarten for all families who want it, immediately jumping into educating four-year-olds is a stretch for New Mexico’s financial resources.
As we have learned, Gov. Richardson is a determined man. When he decides what he wants to do, he launches full-throttle to accomplish it. Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, who is heading the effort, is no slouch either. Both Richardson and Denish would love to have New Mexico up front as a leader in pre-kindergarten education.
It is a popular notion among many New Mexicans. The earlier we can get children started on their education, the better. But as voters in Washington State demonstrated in November, the idea isn’t universally popular. Washington voters rejected a referendum to pay for education of four-year-olds.
Washington voters had been thought to be some of the most likely to go for the idea of higher taxes for more education. If they rejected it after a campaign that brought out both sides of the issue, might New Mexico voters have the same concerns? We’ll never know, except through polling, because public referenda are allowed in this state only under extremely limited circumstances.
So why wouldn’t educating children at the earliest age possible be a good idea? There isn’t much research about how such programs work on a large scale basis as is being proposed here. Research with small samples of children has shown some outstanding results.
But those samples weren’t representative of the broad range of children state officials want to serve and the staff involved in the studies were more highly trained and specialized than what would be available on a large-scale basis.
One reason there isn’t much research on large groups of pre-schoolers is that not many states have gotten into the act yet. Fiscal restraints have been the most common reason and New Mexico, which is near the bottom in school support, is very unlikely to be able to participate alongside more affluent states.
Readiness to learn is also a matter of debate. Does drilling a four-year-old on letters and numbers produce that much of a difference by the time they are 10, as waiting until six when a child is more ready? They may test out better in the low grades, but by upper elementary, their achievement may be no better. And it is in the higher grades that New Mexico students fall farthest behind national averages.
It might be well to wait for other states to be the guinea pigs with pre-kindergarten education and learn from their successes and mistakes. By then Gov. Richardson’s economic development initiatives may have us at the point we won’t have problems supporting another grade level or two.
Yes, the push is constantly downward. When a state gets well on its way to educating four-year-olds, it starts looking at three-year-olds. And it doesn’t stop there. One of these days schools will have to start worrying about potty training. And with school busses now not even having seat belts, how will they ever deal with car seats?
New York State got perhaps the earliest start on pre-kindergarten education. It has struggled mightily with financial issues and doesn’t have many more than 25 percent of children served. Georgia has done better, as have some other states supporting pre-schooling with state lottery funds.
But in New Mexico, lottery proceeds are used for college scholarships in a program that appears too successful to siphon its funds into something else worthwhile.
Florida passed a statewide referendum for pre-kindergarten two years ago. But so far it hasn’t been implemented because of problems the governor and legislature haven’t been able to work out.


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