Funding Should Focus on the Needy

Here’s an oldie but goodie, written by Marc Rhodes, a member of the Kansas House from Newton. He wrote it for the Kansas City Kansan in April of last year. It’s somewhat dated, but still offers some food for thought.

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Over the course of the session, legislators have pulled me aside to share their own buyer’s remorse on bills, “It was a bad vote, but I could lose my seat otherwise.” One thing you can count on is that my votes are not cast based on how things might shake out for me in the next election, but on research and discussion rather than—pardon the expression—saving my seat.

One example was my vote on all-day kindergarten. The Storm amendment set aside $15-million in FY 2008 to begin a five-year phase-in of all-day kindergarten for public schools statewide.

Studies indicate that for many at-risk children, all-day kindergarten would be a better environment than time at home. I believe it; and it is sad social commentary, but not justification for funding all-day kindergarten across the board.

Better to target education dollars to the needy, either for all-day kindergarten for at-risk children, or to expand an existing program such as Parents as Teachers that works with families of children prenatal to age five to provide the information, support and encouragement parents need to help their children develop optimally during the crucial early years of life.

I’ve spoken with teachers and heard it said that first grade benchmarks for “No Child Left Behind” are hard to hit with only half-day kindergarten. I can understand their frustration, but do the benchmarks translate into lasting, educational benefits for children or gold stars for grown ups?

There are parents who admit that all-day kindergarten would free up money they currently spend on day care and be more convenient for their schedules. Of course, this was not how the amendment was promoted, but at least it’s an honest appraisal, albeit not an educational benefit.

Politicians hesitate to ask questions about spending if the word education is attached, whether or not there are educational outcomes tied to the funding. Other sectors use outcomes to evaluate and improve efforts. Businesses use them to find out what works and what doesn’t. Non-profits use them to validate support for their mission. But we are not supposed to ask about increased returns-on-investment for increased spending.

Why not? What educational outcomes should we expect from a significant investment in all-day kindergarten—$15 million to get started and on-going, increased funding in perpetuity?

The Rand Study of data from 7,897 students, Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten concluded that: “Our analyses reinforce the findings of earlier studies that suggest that full-day kindergarten programs may not enhance achievement in the long term.” Advances by full-day kindergarteners “…did not persist into third grade.” Walston, West, and Rathburn (2005). “…the effect was reduced by half at the end of first grade and eliminated by the end of third grade…no significant relationship between full-day kindergarten attendance and grade retention through third grade.” Cannon, Jacknowitz, and Painter (2006).

Another study found “…that parental interest (or lack of it) is more important in explaining acquisition of nonacademic readiness skills than are schooling variables…indicating that early childhood home environment is a major contributor to non-academic readiness skills.” But you knew that, didn’t you?

As a nation, we do well through age 10 when American students score above the international average. It’s at around age 15 that we begin to lose momentum and fall behind other industrialized nations in achievement tests. At the same time, we have a tremendous opportunity to better connect high schools with our country’s burgeoning need for highly paid, high-skilled, technology-savvy manufacturing workers—but that’s for another article. Why not attach dollars to real-world solutions and expect real-world outcomes?

Today, I received a bar chart of the Abecedarian Project sourced by the Center for Public Education advocating for expanded pre-kindergarten. Their study warns that children who didn’t attend pre-kindergarten were almost twice as likely to end up in special education and three times less likely to attend college. Really?

A Google-search added supplemental information. It was a study of 111 at-risk children given individualized attention and games incorporated into their day. And the study did not begin at pre-kindergarten per se, but at infancy.

Of course children benefit from individualized, interactive attention during their formative years. We used to call it parenting. It tears at my heart that some children are not receiving this basic, foundational support. That’s why supporting programs such as Parents as Teachers makes so much sense.

One rule of success is to begin with the end in mind. If your goal is to show people you care about education, more money is an easy way to convey concern. But if your goal is to actually improve education, then you have to start with solutions that work. You have to spend your money—or in this case, someone else’s money—strategically. Which is why I couldn’t support the Storm amendment.

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