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Pre-kindergarten math lesson [Editorial]

Responding to a proposal set forth in Gov. Martin O'Malley's recent State of the State Address calling for full day pre-kindergarten being offered across Maryland, Harford County interim Superintendent Barbara Canavan offered conditional support for the idea.

"Children can do so much more. We need to expose them and give them the opportunity to learn, and the earlier the better," Canavan was quoted as telling the Harford County delegation to the Maryland General Assembly.

She then went on to highlight an important aspect of the program that could be all too easy to ignore. Calling Harford County's existing pre-kindergarten efforts "a big ticket item," Canavan told the local legislators if the state is willing to pay for universal full day pre-kindergarten, it would be a wonderful addition to the local school system's offerings. The superintendent's praise of the potential benefits of full day pre-kindergarten notwithstanding, for a lot of families, a full day of pre-school would serve as little more than a child day care program funded by the school system. Certainly there are instances where the program serves as a valuable social safety net, but the logic behind making the program universal has some holes in it.

It hasn't been that many years since kindergarten students were in school for half days, and that expansion was expensive, even as it remains to be seen just how valuable that extension was in terms of increased learning.

A state requirement to expand full day pre-kindergarten would be of limited value, if it were wholly funded by the state; without state funding, it would be an unwelcome local burden.

These days, the local school system has been lamenting its funding levels and claiming it is having financial difficulties keeping up with existing educational responsibilities.

Canavan is spot on with her assessment that if the state legislature is going to require full-day pre-kindergarten, it needs to come up with the money to pay for it.

Unfortunately, Maryland, like the local school system has been claiming hardship when it comes to paying for the services it already offers. The addition of full-day pre-kindergarten for all would be a substantial expense; unfortunately, it's an expense the legislature could well end up ignoring.

At present, full-day pre-kindergarten is offered in Harford County at 19 of 34 elementary schools and is primarily offered to families of modest financial means. There is, however, substantially more demand for such programs, as evidenced by a proliferation of private pre-kindergarten programs.

In other words, there's political incentive for legislators in an election year to vote for full-day pre-kindergarten. There's also incentive for legislators in an election year not to vote for anything that includes adding expenses — and taxes — to the state budget. It's a formula for a state law requiring the county school systems to offer full-day pre-kindergarten programs, and use county money to pay for that offering.

It wouldn't be the end of the world, and if the state government is going to be irresponsible about how it tells the county governments to spend their money, education spending is better than most kinds.

Still, it would be nice if the kind of attention that goes into political calculous of such programs were also applied to the finances involved.

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