A board member's proposal to extricate the Columbia County school system from the pre-kindergarten program seems on the verge of achieving true bureaucratic inertia: When the board meets Tuesday night, some members plan to actually advocate expanding the program instead.
If nothing else comes of it, the discussion has proven how difficult it can be to end or even examine an entitlement program - in this case, one that serves just more than 300 pupils.
Even before the scandal that cast an unhealthy light on the inherent unfairness of public school pre-K, we urged the county to pull out of the state-lottery-funded program, for several reasons:
- Nearly twice as many students already are served by the private sector, which could easily expand to absorb the school system's slots. The argument that rural children would be hurt by elimination of the public school program increasingly sounds like a demand for convenient child care; after all, what's done with these children before they grow old enough to enter pre-K? Are they just wandering the street?
- The program's educational value is questionable. County officials have yet to produce evidence, which should be readily available, to demonstrate that public schools do a better job with pre-K than the private sector.
- The program is not a state requirement, yet takes up scarce classroom space. This point is especially important in our fast-growing county. A combination of pre-K elimination and rezoning could have delayed or eliminated the need for the new elementary school opening this fall.
So what is the basis for expanding pre-K, as voiced by board members Mike Sleeper and Mildred Blackburn? The only argument that could hold water would be that public-school pre-K is educationally superior to private-sector programs. Fine; prove it.
Trustee Wayne Bridges, who made the original call for eliminating pre-K beginning with the 2008-09 school year, still has it right when he says trustees need to make a decision, now, so the public sector can have ample time to respond accordingly.
The board is set to take up the issue Tuesday, and seems inclined to pass the buck to newly appointed Superintendent Charles Nagle. The buck has to stop somewhere, however, and only an objective look at pre-K will do it.
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