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October 5, 1999

ON EDUCATION

Gov. Siegelman Plans to Fund a Voluntary Pre-K Program by a Lottery

by Edmund Tsang

When voters go to the poll on October 12, they will decide whether Alabama will join 37 states in the U.S. with a state-funded pre-kindergarten program. If voters approve the Alabama Education Lottery Amendment, Mississippi will be the only southeastern state that does not fund pre-K programs.

Rick Dent of the Alabama Education Lottery Foundation (AELF), which was set up by Governor Don Siegelman to promote passage of the amendment, told The Harbinger in a telephone interview two weeks ago that revenues from the lottery would be divided in the beginning into roughly three equal parts to fund college scholarships, technology in the classroom, and a voluntary pre-K program. In later years, the amount devoted to college scholarships will increase from an initial $43.7 million to $85.4 million while computers for school would fall from $51.7 million to about $10, and funding for the pre-K program would remain at approximately $54.6 million, according to figures published in the Mobile daily newspaper.

In Mobile County, 702 students presently attend a federally-funded pre-K program, which represents a reduction of 172 students from the 1998-1999 school year due to budget cuts, according to Kym Carroll of the Mobile County Public School System (MCPSS). Ms. Carroll estimates there are more than 3,500 applicants for the pre-K program that is offered at selected schools located in the Title I attendance zone and at the Just 4 Development Center. Applicants are screened using the Boehm Test, Carroll states, and students are selected based on lowest score (greatest need). The pre-K program uses the High/Scope Model, which is a nationally validated early childhood model.

Even if Alabama voters approve the lottery amendment, Dent said “it will take a while to get it up and running for the majority of children in the state,” though the first pre-K class will begin in Fall, 2000. “It took Georgia about 6.5 years for the pre-K program to reach sixty percent participation,” Dent added. “And that’s faster than they thought, because it took nineteen years for the kindergarten program to reach maturation when it got started.”

According to information provided by AELF, about 15,500 of the state’s 61,000 four- year-olds would participate in year one of the pre-K program. Each class of twenty students will have one teacher and one assistant, and consists of 6.5 hours of instruction, five days a week, “emphasizing growth in language and literacy, math concepts, science, arts, physical development and social competence.” Parents are given choices such as choice of school and choice of curriculum.

In Mobile County, parents who are interested in participating in the pre-K program probably will not be sending their four-year olds to public schools but to private providers. According to a report in the daily newspaper last week, school officials said over-crowding in the system makes it nearly impossible for MCPSS to participate.

A cursory survey conducted by The Harbinger last week of pre-K programs run by private companies or churches finds the cost ranges from $45 to $80 per week for a full-day program and $40 to $50 for a half-day program -- see table.


Dr. Rebecca McMahon, assistant professor of education, University of South Alabama (USA), said pre-K programs “provide early-education experiences and foster independence.” Pre-K programs also help with socialization and making relations outside the home, and for early-year cognitive development, Dr. McMahon added.

When asked whether pre-K program should be voluntary or mandatory, Dr. McMahon said there are “too many variables” involved in setting a participation policy. “It depends on family situation and the individual child’s ability at that stage,” Dr. McMahon added. “Some kids are better off one-on-one with a parent, but not many parents can do that.”

Regarding the potential danger of forcing children to start schooling too early, Dr. McMahon said pre-K programs must be “developmentally appropriate.” “It would be inappropriate to put three-year-olds in a first-grade setting,” Dr. McMahon explained. “Sitting in a desk is not appropriate for three-year-olds.”

Dr. Charlie Zheng, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at USA, has a four- year-old daughter enrolled in a pre-K program part-time, even though she is “already ahead academically.” “Not only is knowledge important, but social skills are important too,” Dr. Zheng said. Zheng, who is originally from People’s Republic of China, said, “Kindergarten is not required in China, but in the U.S., when you go to kindergarten, children are treated like a student. Society expects kids to go to a real school in kindergarten. If a child has no pre-school experience, he or she will be behind.” Dr. Zheng said he hopes the pre-K program will help his daughter gain confidence when she goes to kindergarten next year.

When asked his criteria in selecting a pre-K program, Dr. Zheng said the first priority is reputation and the second is location. He picked the program based on recommendations from neighbors, adding that he also picked a program near his home so his daughter could develop friendships with other children in the neighborhood who attend the same program. For kindergarten programs, academics are important and location not important, Dr. Zheng added.

Concerning the upcoming vote on the Alabama educational lottery, Dr. Joseph Newman, professor and chair of the department of educational leadership and foundation, USA, said Siegelman’s basis of the Alabama lottery “appears to be sound and viable” because it is patterned after the Georgia lottery. “The Georgia lottery seems to be working as planned, and it is indeed generating lots of money for public education,” Dr. Newman said.

“Around the country, though, lotteries for education have not always turned out to be the godsend their supporters have hoped for. State legislatures have tended to cut back their financial support from other sources, income and sales taxes, for instance, once lottery money has started flowing into the schools,” Dr. Newman said. “The result has sometimes been not net gain in funding for public education.”

“I would hate to see our legislature use the Alabama lottery, which is designed to help higher education far more than K-12 schools, as an excuse to reduce other forms of financial support for public education,” added Dr. Newman.


SOME PRE-KINDERGARTEN PROGRAMS IN MOBILE

ProviderCosts**Curriculum
Dauphin Way Baptist$82/wkCombination of BECCA, Phonics,
No Part-TimeWeekday
Dauphin Way Methodist$75/wkHigher Reach
No Part-Time
Green FieldsFull-Time: $75/wkHigh Scope - same as public school
Part-Time: $50/wk
Knollwood ChristianFull-Time: $175/moAssociation of Christian Schools
Part-Time: $162International Curriculum
Sage BaptistFull-Time: $72/wkBECCA
Part-Time (3 days):
$14/day
Spring Hill BaptistFull-Time: $74/wkNot Available
No Part-Time
Westminster PresbyterianPart-Time: $115/moNot set curriculum - includes computer
Full-Time: add $37/wkand music classes
Government BaptistFull-Time: $80/wkBECCA
No Part-Time

** All programs have registration fees of $50-75. Some have book fees of $40-64, and activity fees of $75.


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