Let's make this clear: When the Columbia County public school year begins on Aug. 11, 2008, there will still be pre-kindergarten classes in the county paid for by the Georgia Lottery.
There just won't be any pre-K classes in most Columbia County elementary schools.
Tuesday's school board vote to pull out of the pre-K program sends an immediate signal to every preschool, child-care center and entrepreneur in the county: In a year and a half, there will be 320 more children headed your way.
What makes the timing uncomfortable is the River Ridge Elementary drawing scandal is getting too much blame for the exit.
True, the River Ridge inquiry raised the temperature on the debate by pointing out one of the long-standing inequities of pre-K: Not only is the program not offered at every elementary school, but the public-school slots are very limited.
The competition for those slots is so fierce, in fact, that there has long been suspicion that teachers sought to rig the drawings in favor of their own children. Whether true, or just sour grapes from parents whose children weren't chosen, the perception has always cast a shadow on the drawings.
Yet the fact that drawings for a public-school program had to be held at all was a problem. Desperate parents tell stories of anxiously reserving space in multiple private pre-K classes to give them more choices in the event their children aren't selected in a public-school drawing, or of scrambling afterward to find a slot.
But the drawings themselves aren't the only, or biggest, reason for getting out of pre-K. Public schools are not required to house the state-funded classes. With Columbia County taxpayers paying to open an average of one new school per year to meet population growth, it only makes sense to jettison the non-mandatory use of 16 classrooms.
Offering more than a year's notice gives the private sector plenty of time to come up with more space; private pre-K programs in Columbia County already accommodate nearly twice as many pupils as the public schools. And it will give time for parents of 2-year-olds to plan ahead.
It also will allow the school system to absorb any employees displaced from its program, and to create plans to make sure children in rural parts of the county aren't left without service.
The only potential problem is that the long drawdown also provides plenty of time for board members to waffle on their decision if the tiny number of unhappy parents are noisy enough.
Trustees should stick to their guns. They were bold enough to take a decisive step Tuesday; they must be resolute enough to stand by it.
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