Community View: Kindergarten must be a priority
Written by Rev. Bruce Baker and Rabbi Jonathan Blake
Kindergarten has long been the subject of comment and debate. One educational reformer wrote, “Within the last 12 years, kindergartens have been more and more recognized, and will now undoubtedly be accepted in all civilized countries.” The year was 1876. The writer was Bertha von Marenholtz-Bulow. She wrote in appreciation of a fellow German educator, Friedrich Froebel, who pioneered the very idea of kindergarten, which means, literally, “child’s garden.” She also wrote, “At the same time, the complete carrying out of Froebel’s educational idea is far from assured”
New York state, 137 years later, is proving her point.
During the last state budget period, districts like East Ramapo and Port Chester considered cutting to half-day in order to balance their budget. What’s more, given budget forecasts, some officials spoke of the possibility of eliminating it entirely in the years to come. How is this possible? Port Chester, like many other communities with working class populations, was caught between a limited local tax base, a cap on local tax increases, and yet another cap placed by the governor himself on the amount of aid the state will provide to school districts in need. Because New York remains one of only eight states that does not require districts to offer kindergarten, school districts across the state are increasingly eying kindergarten as a place to reduce or cut entirely. We counted 13 that considered it in 2012, including East Ramapo and Port Chester. We also learned that Mount Vernon considered it a few years ago.
The fact that kindergarten is not considered a basic staple of our educational strategy comes as a surprise to most. Most of us went to kindergarten. And most assume that kindergarten is an integral part of the pivotal introductory phase of a child’s educational life.
As Gov. Andrew Cuomo stated in his recent State of the State address, children with good quality early childhood education do demonstrably better on tests, are more likely to graduate from high school, less likely to repeat a grade, and significantly less likely to be arrested as a juvenile. He cited these facts in making a case for his ensuing proposal that the state invest in high quality, full-day pre-kindergarten for our state’s highest-need students. This is certainly a laudable goal.
Ironically, however, in some parts of our state, it is kindergarten that remains both optional and vulnerable. Kindergarten should be neither. It should be mandatory, and secure. It should be an essential and high-quality feature of our educational landscape. It should be particularly well supported in the most economically distressed communities. What good is it to require full-day Pre-K, in a high-needs district, if the following year is only half day, or eliminated entirely?
New York City and Rochester won state permission last year to mandate full-day kindergarten, joining Syracuse, which has had required kindergarten since 1993.
This trend should be extended statewide by requiring that kindergarten be seen as nothing less than essential to the educational experience for all 5-year-olds.
And the state should provide adequate funding to support it.
It is shocking that despite all the arguments, not one of the major power players engaged in debating the future of education —the Albany political establishment, the business community, the so-called for-profit and on-line learning operators, the unions, the college and university communities —has made something so basic as kindergarten a high priority.
In the same vein, these same institutions have not made the recruitment, training, and support of high-quality teachers a major priority. This process has been left loose and haphazard. Perhaps the governor’s new proposals regarding the attraction and retention of high quality teachers will attempt to address these matters. If so, we will be the first to applaud.
A state fully and maturely focused on the interests of its children, on their growth and development, on their ability to get what Lincoln called “an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life” would guarantee that every child in every part of our state could expect to enter a full-day kindergarten class headed by a well-prepared, energetic and positive teacher.
New York has yet to reach that state of maturity. It is about time that it did.
The writers are pastor of All Soul’s Presbyterian Church in Port Chester and rabbi of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, respectively. Both are strategy team members of Westchester United, www.westchester-united.org/, a growing network of 19 synagogues, churches, mosques and other community groups working to build a new power base of communities in Westchester County.