Not too many years ago in Columbia County, some public schools operated only through 11th grade. Twelfth grade came later. Then kindergarten. Then, 15 years ago, the state piloted pre-kindergarten.
Children now can spend 14 years in public education - even more if they fail a grade and stay longer, or are classified as special needs and start earlier.
Funding all that education, though among some of the best dollars spent, is an increasing burden on taxpayers. While local officials are constantly seeking ways to make the system run more efficiently, they are sometimes stymied by a state government that hasn't lived up to its own funding obligations, even as it imposes mandates that make education more expensive for locals.
Expense is just one of the factors that has Columbia County's school officials considering - not too seriously just yet, but still considering - the idea of paring down the amount of education that's offered.
Specifically, the county in the future could consider pulling out of the business of operating prekindergarten programs, and let the private sector take them on instead.
"I'm almost in favor of looking at that sort of thing for us," says School Board Chairman Regina Buccafusco.
The idea is not as radical as it might sound. In the past three years, three Georgia counties have backed out of the state-lottery-funded pre-K program, with Cobb County recently announcing its public schools would no longer participate.
Mostly it's an issue of scarce classroom space. While the state pays for teachers for the program, local schools provide the classrooms to house the pupils. Currently, Columbia County provides space for 320 pre-K pupils; though spread around the county, that's nearly as many students as an entire elementary school.
During the past couple of weeks, the system has been in the midst of conducting its annual lottery that determines which students are chosen for the limited public school slots. Students who aren't picked still are able to enroll in local private preschools, which also receive state lottery funding.
In briefly discussing the issue at a recent school board meeting, Buccafusco worried that if all of the pre-K spaces were turned over to the private sector, the public school system wouldn't have any control over the curriculum.
That's already the case for children in private, lottery-funded pre-K. But rather than worry about a lack of control, here is a prime opportunity for Columbia County:
With plenty of years of both public and private pre-K students funneling into the county's kindergarten classrooms, it should be possible to track classroom records of both populations and see if either group of students has experienced more long-term success.
If it's the public-school group, then the county should fight to stay in the pre-K business. But if the private-school group is just as good, or better, the school system should let the private sector take over all pre-K programs - and then study them to find out ways to improve.
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