Stuart D. Berger said he was stunned that one of the first major initiatives he announced as new superintendent for Baltimore County -- full-day kindergarten in 32 county schools -- received criticism. It was the kind of program that sailed through unscathed in Dr. Berger's previous school district, in Wichita, Kans.
Actually, criticism of the plan, which will affect 2,000 of the county's 7,000 kindergartners, hasn't been widespread. At a recent school board meeting, one parent complained that her child's kindergarten wasn't being expanded to a full school day. No children should receive the benefit if all children don't, she contended. Conversely, another parent believed the program shouldn't be offered at all because overcrowding and resource shortages persist at various county schools.
Besides reflecting self-interest, those arguments are not likely to carry the day during Stuart Berger's tenure as school chief. For one, the new superintendent has made it clear that he feels different schools have different needs and he doesn't plan to treat the system with one broad brush stroke. In fact, all-day kindergarten in Baltimore County is only plausible because its focus is youngsters in largely disadvantaged communities. In less needy areas, all-day kindergarten would constitute taxpayer-financed day care for upper-income families. It would be far less palatable to taxpayers.
As for the argument that this program saps other resources, Dr. Berger was applauded by county, school board and teacher union leaders because he came up with the cash for 46 new teachers by cutting fat in textbook and paper-supply budgets. To those who feel the expansion of kindergarten shouldn't precede a reduction of class sizes in the upper grades, Dr. Berger has gone on record that he doesn't believe modestly smaller classes necessarily improve learning.
As a targeted program, all-day kindergarten appears progressive and economical. Someday, possibly, a few other needy schools could be added that were skipped over because they are overcrowded.
The prospect is more remote, Dr. Berger may come to find, that any announcement he makes of import would not stir dissatisfaction in some county circles. Just as a bear adds a layer of fat to carry him through winter, the often-chilly political climate of Baltimore County has a way of thickening thin skin.