Boots & Sabers

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0601, 31 Mar 15

4K Is a Complex Issue

My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here it is:

A perennial issue has crept into the public discourse again as the candidates for the West Bend School Board make their cases for election. Four-year-old kindergarten is not offered by the West Bend School District, but some think that it should be.

The issue of 4K is, on the one hand, incredibly simple. Is more education at a young age better for kids? Of course it is. On the other hand, the issue is incredibly complex in that it invites discussion on the role of government, parents and the general culture.

When people discuss 4K, they are generally referring to a 4K program provided by the taxpayers through the public school system, but 4K education has always been provided through a variety of means including parochial 4K, private child care centers, Head Start and, of course, by parents at home. After a spike around 1900 in urban 4K and the end of rural one-room school rooms in which over half of 4-year-olds were educated at public expense, the responsibility shifted to the home with over 80 percent of 4-year-olds being educated outside of the public school system.

The trend reversed in the direction of the public schools in the 1980s and has expanded ever since. Consider that in 1980, only six public school districts in Wisconsin offered taxpayerfinanced 4K, and now more than 90 percent of districts offer 4K. What has never changed in all of the swings in public and private 4K offerings is that we all generally agree that education is not something that magically starts when a child reaches 5 years of age. It is something that begins, as it must, much earlier.

The recent push for 4K in the public schools has a couple of primary motives — one laudatory, one not so much. One motive is the desire to provide a better education for kids. The demands on kids is pushing higherlevel skills lower in the grades where kids in 5K or first grade are expected to know a lot more than they did 20 years ago. By providing 4K, more kids will be better equipped entering 5K to allow the teachers to provide that education instead of remedial training.

The other motive for 4K in the public schools is financial. There is a lot of tax money available for 4K education and the costs are relatively minor compared to the costs of education for the older kids. Launching a 4K program tends to be a profitable enterprise for school districts that engage in it. In times of strained budgets, anything that spins off surplus funds is attractive.

The argument against 4K in the public schools is that it is the parents’ responsibility, not the taxpayers’, to raise their kids and prepare them to enter their primary schooling years. Given the limited, although important, amount of education that is possible with 4-year-olds, public school 4K is mostly a glorified form of day care at taxpayers’ expense. There is a lot of truth in that argument.

When the issue about 4K in the West Bend School District came up a few years ago, it died fairly quickly for a very simple reason. The West Bend School District lacks the physical space to start a 4K program. While the district has expanded some of the buildings since then, it has closed others and the space issue has not abated. If the West Bend School District seeks to start a 4K program, it will likely have to do so in partnership with community and church organizations.

The three candidates running for the West Bend School Board have expressed different perspectives on 4K with Therese Sizer supporting it while Vinney Pheng and Monte Schmiege show considerably more caution on the matter.

Whether or not the West Bend School District should have a 4K program is likely to be an issue before the board in the next couple of years. Consider that as you cast your vote.


0601, 31 March 2015


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