Pennsylvania needs to embrace all-day kindergarten

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Some Pennsylvania children probably have benefited from not having had to begin their formal education until age 8, currently the latest starting age allowed under state law.

Those children are a small minority, however.

Gov. Tom Wolf wants to lower the mandatory starting age to 6 — the age that most children already start first grade — and that is a laudable element of his 2019-20 state budget proposal.

Wolf has said the change would bring the Keystone State in line with laws in other states.

The governor also supports a further lowering of the mandatory starting age to 5, as part of his advocacy for implementing universal full-day kindergarten.

Wolf has recommended a full-day-kindergarten study focusing on issues such as availability of classroom space and staffing.

An estimated 49,000 Pennsylvania 5-year-olds currently are not enrolled in kindergarten. Meanwhile, it is estimated that more than 3,300 children ages 6 and 7 statewide have not yet started school.

Understandably, the mandatory-age changes that the governor favors might challenge facilities and budgets of numerous school districts. If — or whenever — lawmakers and the governor give the go-ahead to one or both of the starting-age changes, the commonwealth should make additional money available to districts for a specified implementation time period.

In regard to universal full-day kindergarten, an article in the March 26 Mirror reported that once a kindergarten-related study is completed, Wolf administration officials would work with state lawmakers to find the funding necessary for that expanded educational opportunity.

It's important to acknowledge that a number of area school districts already have full-day kindergarten, even though kindergarten currently isn't mandatory in this state.

Meanwhile, there are some area parents who support more early childhood learning opportunities for children younger than age 5.

The big uncertainty at this time is which Wolf educational proposals will survive the budget-preparation process in which lawmakers currently are engaged. Pennsylvania isn't swimming in surplus money.

Actually, there's no guarantee that the state will have any money to spare for new initiatives of significant size during the coming budget year, which begins July 1.

Looking ahead, state residents should pay attention to what's happening on the budget front, especially regarding education funding and proposals. Beyond that, they should not hesitate to provide input to lawmakers and the governor's office about what they feel should happen regarding the mandatory school-attendance age and universal full-day kindergarten.

Lawmakers should reflect on the following viewpoint of Spring Cove School District Superintendent Betsy Baker:

“Our students' achievement — particularly their literacy development and mathematical skills — improved significantly when we made the shift (to full-day kindergarten). The heightened student achievement impacted the curricula beyond kindergarten, so it would be difficult to return to half-day sessions."

She added that “a child's early years are the foundation for their educational development. Lowering the compulsory school age to 5 helps ensure that all children have access to high-quality early childhood education."

In this increasingly challenging world, early education is more important than it ever has been.

The Altoona Mirror

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