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Kindergarten bill is only stopgap measure

Legislative fix, which goes to the House, is a necessary bridge for the time being

Oregon shortchanges its children by not funding full-day kindergarten in all public schools. But until the state can muster the money and the political will to mandate all-day kindergarten, Oregon legislators must provide the next-best alternative - a stopgap measure that buys time.

The Senate voted 23-7 last week to approve Senate Bill 1068, which would authorize school districts to continue with tuition-based programs for the next two and a half years. This legislative clarification is needed in response to two legal opinions that concluded public schools - under current state law - could not legally charge for kindergarten.

We view this legislative fix as a necessary bridge to the ultimate goal of providing full-day kindergarten for all students. But lawmakers also must commit to a date to cease the practice of charging tuition in public schools - a move that may not be as popular in Lake Oswego as elsewhere.

The state has an absolute obligation to offer an equal education to all students. By definition, tuition-based kindergarten runs the risk of creating an educational apartheid between people who can afford the price and those who cannot.

In Lake Oswego

The Lake Oswego School District currently charges $3,050 in tuition to 63 students distributed to programs at three of the district's nine elementary schools - Hallinan, Lake Grove and Uplands.

The district has received 98 contracts for full-day kindergarten next year, which includes seven from outside the district.

The impact of SB 1068 in Lake Oswego would depend on where funding came from - whether the state provided additional money or asks districts to take it out of what they're already receiving, said Superintendent Bill Korach.

'We have found that in the past that their tendency is to say 'We're going to fund it, but you have to take it out of resources you're currently getting,' and it doesn't mean they're adding money to fund it,' he said. 'That's the big difference. If they're going to give us money to do it, great. If they're not, then that's where the issue comes in.'

The current set-up for all-day kindergarten provides parents with options without taking away from other district programs, he added.

'Even for us, (SB 1068) would create some challenges,' Korach said, adding that the district is already using all of its classroom space. 'But for some other districts, it's a huge concern.'

Inequalities being created

As educational research has eliminated any doubt about the effectiveness of all-day kindergarten, local school districts in recent years have resorted to a number of funding techniques to go beyond the half-day programs typically offered in Oregon. Some districts make use of the tuition option, while others utilize federal dollars to convert part-time kindergarten programs to full time.

We recognize that school administrators are using creative means to accomplish the worthy end of having more children fully prepared for first grade and the years beyond. But the inherent result of this uneven approach to kindergarten is unequal treatment of students and even among families within the same school attendance area. That's not what public education is supposed to be about.

For that reason, Senate Bill 1068 is difficult to support as it moves over to the House. However, we believe that continuing the tuition model for just two and a half more years is better than killing off this fledgling drive toward full-day kindergarten.

This legislation allows school districts, including Portland Public Schools and several suburban districts, to continue to charge parents who are interested and able to pay for full-day kindergarten classes. And it allows legislators and educators time to evaluate how they will expand kindergarten programs in the future.

Issue cannot be neglected this time

That analysis time is important. Providing full kindergarten funding is not simply a matter of increasing operational budgets to hire more teachers. Lawmakers and school administrators also must consider the significant costs of providing for an expected surge in needed classroom facilities, educational materials and trained kindergarten teachers - especially in fast-growing suburban districts.

Senate Bill 1068 is simply a stopgap measure. What it should not be is a forgotten commitment to provide a full solution later.

All too often, issues are put aside and neglected between legislative sessions, only to return later with a vengeance and a higher price tag. This time, lawmakers must commit to study and resolve this issue within two years.

When it comes to kindergarten, Oregon must get out of the educational backwaters - and it must do so in a way that assures equal access to a full public education for all children.