The United States House of Representatives and Senate are currently considering separate bills on strengthening pre-kindergarten programs across the United States. On the surface, this sounds like great news. Who would argue against providing educational opportunities to four-year-olds?
There is, however, (at least) one problem. The House and Senate bills do not address the need to provide all day kindergarten in all fifty states. President Obama’s initial proposal included funds for all-day kindergarten. The House and Senate proposals lack that element and include funding formulas that are discretionary (Alyson Klein, Edweek Blog, November 13, 2013).
This could lead to the age-old problem of unfunded mandates. By the eighth year of the proposed Senate bill, states would be responsible for providing 50% of the cost of their pre-kindergarten programs. Where that money would come from is a mystery.
So, as exciting as funding for pre-kindergarten sounds, we are still a nation without full-day kindergarten in all fifty states. In fact, only ten (10) states and DC offer full day kindergarten programs. Thirty-four (34) states offer half day kindergarten programs and six (6) have no requirement for kindergarten attendance. In addition, many of the states that offer kindergarten programs do so without making attendance mandatory (childrensdefense.org).
Any bill being proposed to build pre-kindergarten programs must include funding for mandatory full-day kindergarten programs in all fifty states first. Can you imagine states developing strong pre-kindergarten programs and then sending their students to kindergarten programs that are half day and/or optional?
We should applaud the President, the Senate, and the House for making early childhood education a priority. Those who work in primary level schools can tell you that the earlier we get children in school, the bigger impact we can make. The opportunity to reach out to four-year-olds and their families is exciting. It is, however, tempered by the knowledge that as a nation we have yet to fully commit to the education of our five-year-olds. Let’s get that right first and then address the pre-kindergarten dilemma.