Full-day pre-K isn’t really a top priority

What a bandwagon there is for full-day pre-kindergarten. First, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio campaigned on it, then New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo offered to implement it statewide at state expense so de Blasio wouldn’t have to tax the rich to do so. Then President Barack Obama made it part of his State of the Union speech, saying his administration would work with private-sector partners to make it available for more kids.

“Research shows that one of the best investments we can make in a child’s life is high-quality early education,” the president said.

Full-day pre-K might be nice to have, for some more than others, but it’s not a cure-all, even if some politicians talk about it that way.

We see Cuomo and Obama’s full-day pre-K push as more politics than policy. It’s about convincing the parents of 3- and 4-year-olds to vote for the Democratic Party.

In New York City, full-day pre-K should probably happen. People there voted in a mayor who had made it a major plank in his platform, with a tax on the rich to pay for it. That’s democracy. Plus, New York City’s mayor is supposed to be in charge of the school system, whereas New York’s governor and the U.S. president aren’t.

For the rest of the state, there are improvements that could be made to the existing universal pre-K (UPK) system (more on that in a minute) but really, we think it’s far from a top priority – especially now.

Our education system is already in a huge state of upheaval. With the federal Common Core – and New York’s rushed, botched implementation of it – a tech revolution that’s swiftly replacing textbooks with tablets, and a new health mission that’s overhauling lunchroom fare, the hurricane of change is already close to blowing the doors off our schools.

Plus, for the last few years, states like New York have been leaning hard on local school districts to cut spending. They’ve cut state aid, partly by playing with the formula for it, and the tax cap, even though it can be overridden, has been a remarkably effective tool at the ballot box. School districts that stayed under the cap limit, even barely, have seen their budgets pass. Those that exceeded it have seen voters shoot them down, even when voters approved the same or higher increases before the days of the cap.

As a result, schools up here long ago ran out of fat to cut and are dropping teachers, meaning bigger classes and fewer offerings. That’s the kind of thing that tends to make education, as a whole, worse.

With the basics endangered by budget cuts, it’s hard to add new stuff. If so, though, our preference would be to add foreign language, in which American schools in general – including those up here – are woefully deficient. Foreign language is also a necessary skill in an ever-shrinking world, and it’s not one most kids are likely to get outside of school.

Plus, little kids learn it so much faster and more easily than older ones. A child who starts Spanish or French in kindergarten or first grade can soak it in while a middle- or high-schooler has to cram grammar and vocabulary, making it less fun and a harder slog.

As for full-day UPK, maybe it should wait. When, in the future, there’s money and head space to deal with it, here are some suggestions:

-Pre-K, if it’s offered, should be funded on a long-term basis, not to be frozen as soon as the governor’s political points have gone cold. Case in point: School districts have been able to opt for half-day UPK since the 1990s, except the state failed in its promise to fully fund it. The allocations didn’t increase as the years went on; state funding for Saranac Lake’s UPK, for example, is stuck at 1999 levels.

-Home rule is important. One-size-fits-all full-day pre-K wouldn’t work for every community. Many have private day-care providers that fill the need and would be put out of business by a state UPK that few are clamoring for. Lake Placid, for instance, doesn’t have UPK, and getting it may well ruin St. Agnes School, for which pre-K accounted for two-thirds of its 91 students in September.

-What about Head Start? This 49-year-old federal child-care program for low-income people is funded but doesn’t have certified teachers the way UPK does. It wouldn’t be easy, but someone should try to figure out how these programs could be integrated – maybe a network that ties in private providers, too. Otherwise there’s a lot of duplication.

To truly improve our pre-K system, we’ll have to take it slow and smart, not rush it the way New York did with Common Core.

But still, pre-K is less essential a service than K-12 education, and the latter shouldn’t have to suffer for it.