CATEGORY: EDT Editorials

AUTHOR: JOER

Editorial, Saturday, Feb. 14, 1998

For quite a few years now conservatives have argued for more local discretion in how public schools are run. It's puzzling, therefore, that many oppose letting local school boards decide whether to operate programs beyond normal school hours and for children below kindergarten age.

Legislation passed both the House and Senate this week authorizing extended day programs. The Senate also allowed pre-K programs, but the House did not. No additional state funds are involved.

Opposition to both extended day and pre-K programs is often emotional and based on the strange notion that they constitute invasion by government into family life. It's not as if such programs are unknown; they already exist in more than half the state's school districts. The legislation simply provides explicit authorization for what is already being done.

In Tupelo, for example, approximately 100 students are enrolled in a pre-K program designed to improve their chances of success in the early years of school. Enrollment in the program is entirely voluntary, as is the school district's offering of it. How that constitutes invasion of family life when parents themselves choose to enroll their children is a mystery.

The Tupelo program is a success, measured by the improvement students have shown in language and cognitive development. These children, who must meet testing criteria demonstrating a need, are getting help that can make the difference between academic success and failure.

Tupelo students reading below grade level in the past have benefited from after-school reading instruction. And a new initiative teaching Spanish to elementary students after regular school hours begins this month. In neither case has anyone been forced to participate, and in the case of the Spanish program, there is private community financial support along with district funds. Do some legislators really want school districts not to have the option to offer and fund these kinds of programs?

Legislative majorities in both houses saw nothing wrong with allowing local districts to decide whether to use their facilities beyond normal school hours, and a majority of senators saw the wisdom in permitting pre-K programs as well. As the two chambers work out a compromise version of this bill the pre-K authorization is important and should be included.

The impact on already existing programs such as Tupelo's if the pre-K provision doesn't pass is uncertain since there is no specific prohibition against such programs. It's unlikely legislators would move to close them down. But specific authorization would remove any question.

The opponents of extended day and pre-K programs some of whom have unfairly maligned the motives of the bill's chief House sponsor, Rep. Eloise Scott of Tupelo have yet to explain convincingly why they would take this decision out of the hands of local school boards and administrators. If there is disagreement, it ought to be resolved on the local level.

The Legislature is on the right track in explicitly giving local communities this option. The House should concur with the Senate by adding pre-K and rejecting the arguments of those who would tie the hands of local school boards in helping children succeed.

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