* School officials ponder full-day kindergarten

Friday, January 19, 2007
Trent Allen (left) and Devin Koch work on listening skills in Joanna Muncie's kindergarten class at Ridpath Primary School earlier this week.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels' top priority, funding full-day kindergarten, is already facing tough political hurdles in the first week of legislation. The proposal could mean a better education for children, but higher property taxes for everyone.

The proposal as of now consists of several principle ideas. First, there is an increase in funding of schools' overall budgets. Second is the implementation of optional full-day kindergarten for the students with the most needs at first and then possibly having full-day kindergarten a requirement in all schools in the next three years.

The full details are still being worked out in the legislature and these proposals are at best ideas right now.

South Putnam Schools Supt. Bruce Bernhardt said that full-day kindergarten was a "positive thing and long overdue."

"The program would be a positive thing if it was fully funded by the state," he said.

As of now South Putnam is not growing and they are not seeing more students in their kindergarten classes like the rest of the state. Currently they offer four sessions of half-day kindergarten.

Bernhardt said that if the state will pay for the increase in teacher salaries, school supplies, and possible building expenses he would not have a problem with changing half-day kindergarten to full-day kindergarten.

According to a survey by the Indiana Department of Education, about 53 percent of school districts would need more classrooms to implement full-day kindergarten.

The Daniels proposal will phase in state-funded full-day kindergarten for students who qualify for free and reduced lunches first. According to research done by the Indiana Department of Education, this group typically has a greater need and start the first grade at a disadvantage in comparison with other student.

State schools would have to cover the cost for the students not receiving full-day kindergarten with their current budgets. This creates a problem for the smaller school corporations in Putnam County. If only five to 10 of the students of the 45 students at a single elementary qualify for state-funded full-day kindergarten it would basically require the school to create full-day kindergarten for everyone in the first year.

It is an issue of funding and what is best for each individual school corporation, Bernhardt said.

He is concerned, however, about what the proposal might do for his students and the community. If the program is unfunded or only partially funded, an increase in property taxes could be in the near future for residence. He also has other questions about the proposal as well.

"I am concerned about increased funding for general education" and that we "do not need [funding] just in kindergarten," Bernhardt said. Other programs also need funding as well and he is hoping a general increase in funding will also be passed.

Others have concerns about what the proposal could mean for first grade classrooms.

"The problem would be in first grade that some would be from half-day kindergarten and some from full-day kindergarten," said North Putnam Schools Supt. Murray Pride.

First grade teachers would have to fill in the gap between the two groups.

The Indiana Department of Education wants a 4-percent increase in basic school funding to cover inflation in each of the next two years. A total of more than $300 million would be added to the current level of funding. Added to that increase would be the proposed extra $144 million to provide state-funded full-day kindergarten. The department of education requests of $8.64 billion is approximately one-third of the budget the state has to spend over the next two years.

Suellen Reed, the state superintendent of public instruction expressed her support for Daniels proposal. She said that the state schools have had a difficult time in the last couple of years and that the proposed funding is a positive step forward.

Both parties support the concept but some Democrats -- who control the House -- say increasing basic funding for all school programs is a more pressing concern. At least one leader of the Republican controlled Senate is a little beleaguered about the proposal possibly increasing property taxes.

New House Speaker Patrick Bauer (D-South Bend) expressed his concern Monday about schools having to lay off teachers and personnel and cut programs in recent years. His priority is to create a solid budget that properly funds the education department and does not increase property taxes, and then look to adding state-funded full-day kindergarten if there is extra money.

Daniels is planning to propose an "aggressive" increase in the general funding of education to appease House Democrats.

Pride said, "The deciding factor is if they are having it for all or just those who qualify for free and reduced lunches and then [NPCSC] needed to look at current funding in the system if it passes" to decide if they will add full-day kindergarten for everyone.

Bernhardt agreed with Pride saying, "We have to wait and see how it shakes out in the legislature," before a decision can be made by SPCSC.

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