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4K needs to be more than about the money

Proposals to promote full-day four-year-old kindergarten (4K) should focus on what is good for the children and communities rather than solely on what is good for school districts’ bottom lines.

Currently, state law counts a 4K student as a 0.5 pupil, unless the program provides at least 87.5 additional hours of outreach materials. Under a pair of companion bills introduced in the senate and assembly earlier this month by Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay) and Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon), if a district’s program requires full-day attendance for five days a week, a student in the program would be counted as a full pupil under the state funding formula.

The vast majority of districts in the state offer some sort of 4K program. Only five school district out of 411 that have elementary schools do not offer 4K. The proposed change would provide a direct incentive to districts to expand their existing programs to full-day in order to increase their pupil counts and, by extension, get more money from the state for their local school.

Based solely on the math, such a move would be the obvious route as districts would be in the position to double their revenue on this group of students while incurring minimal additional costs since districts already have 4K teachers and classrooms in place. More money from the state without having to incur additional local expenses could be a bonanza for local taxpayers who could see property tax relief as a result.

Since schools don’t operate in a vacuum, but are part of the larger community, additional public funding for 4K programs could have mixed impacts. On one hand, parents who are paying for childcare will see benefits since a full-day school-run program would eliminate, or greatly reduce, that expense. The challenge for private childcare providers is that 4K-aged children are an important revenue source since they require fewer adults per group of children than other age groups. The long-term impacts of a 4K program may lead to increases in daycare expenses for younger children as centers look to offset lost revenues. At the same time, it could be beneficial, especially for rural districts that are lacking in childcare options.

As is always the case when it comes to schools, the challenge is to look beyond the profit/loss columns on the balance sheets and instead focus on what is in the best educational interest of the children involved.

For Rep. Kitchens and Sen. Olsen, the solution to who benefits is obvious. The two primary sponsors are the co-chairs of the Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding. Their memo seeking co-sponsors to the bills stated: “During the Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding, the Committee heard testimony regarding the benefits of early childhood education. Early childhood education has been shown to be extremely beneficial for children between the ages of 3-5. Some of these benefits include improved social skills, better academic success later on in life, an improved attention span, as well as an enthusiasm for learning.”

With Gov. Tony Evers having called for expansion of 4K programs in his 2019 State of the State address, the bills have a measure of bipartisan support. They are likewise supported by the Wisconsin Association of School Boards and other groups, which makes their ultimate passage more likely.

Local school boards will ultimately be the ones to decide if their schools should offer these all-day programs. In making that decision school leaders must use care not to view 4K students as potential cash cows, but instead ensure the programs put learning first.