Harford County's decision not to provide prekindergarten classes at Riverside and Joppatowne elementary schools was disappointing, since the board of education already spent the money to build the new classrooms.
Now it appears that the federal Head Start program for disadvantaged youngsters may hold Pre-K classes this fall in those two schools.
That's good news for lots of the 60 kids signed up at the two locations, but not for all. Head Start services are limited to children from lower-income families; classes aren't open to all children in the school's district, even on a sliding tuition payment basis. The program provides meals and health screening in addition to early education.
This kind of partnership between the county school system and the federal early ed program could prove beneficial. The county would provide the space, Head Start the teaching and services. This assuming that county taxpayers will pay for schoolrooms and that Head Start will survive the Congressional budget hunt.
Harford's Pre-K program already targets areas with more economically disadvantaged children. Although the administration wants these classrooms in all elementary schools, only a third of them now offer the program for 4-year-olds. This year's county budget experience demonstrates that permanently funding a system-wide Pre-K program will be difficult and will take many years.
This might be a good point at which to take stock of the plan, to open up the debate about the values of universal prekindergarten and its drawbacks. Is this program academically important for a complete public education, or is it organized day care and an expensive socialization experience? Does Harford County want to commit significant funds to building and staffing a level of public education that is purely optional? Or to build facilities for a federal program to decide which Harford youngsters may participate?
It's only been two years since kindergarten for 5-year-olds was required by Maryland law. That was said to help young children prepare for classroom routine. Now the same argument is being used for Pre-K classes.
The debate can't be piecemeal, with some sections of the county getting this service while others are denied the option. With school funds becoming tighter, Harford should get a head start on re-evaluating the need for and cost of a system-wide prekindergarten program.