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School debate healthy

May 02, 2003

Few Pennsylvania lawmakers dispute the research that says early-childhood education programs help student achievement. They're just not sure how much achievement they'll get for the millions they're being asked to spend. It's a healthy debate that's needed so the plan can go forward with widespread support.

The $309 million early-childhood plan is part of a $559 million proposal for education spending advanced by Gov. Ed Rendell, who expects the early-childhood fund to grow to $687 million by 2007.

What would the state's 501 school districts get for that cash? Full-day kindergarten and smaller classes for kindergarten through third grade. In 150 districts where at least 35 percent of the children qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, the fund would create full-day pre-school programs for 4-year-olds.

The pre-school program would not be mandatory, but school districts would have to apply for money to participate.

Is the achievement children experience worth what it would cost? Yes, says Vicki Phillips, the state's secretary of education.

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Drawing on her experience in Lancaster County, where she served as superintendent previously, Phillips said that when that system went from half-day to full-day kindergarten, student achievement more than doubled. On reading tests, the percentage scoring as "advanced" went from 25 percent to 57 percent.

During a hearing Wednesday, Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, R-Dauphin, said he could cite data to refute Phillips, but didn't. Instead he challenged her to link early-childhood programs to success in high school.

More relevant were the comments of Sen. Harold Mowery, R-Cumberland, who wondered where school districts would find space to house the additional programs. Phillips said the administration is working on that.

Clearly this proposal is only half-formed now and Rendell may have to settle for half a loaf unless those questions are answered. Let the debate continue.

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