by Christopher Paslay
Anyone familiar with early childhood education will tell you that years three through six in a child’s life are extremely important. It’s during this time that a child’s brain is the most impressionable, especially when it comes to language formation and critical thinking skills. In their groundbreaking book, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley showed that a child’s cognitive development is greatly influenced by the type of interaction he or she has with parents and teachers. The amount and kind of language children hear as youngsters are strongly correlated with their IQs later in life.
Outside of the instructional value of early childhood education, of course, there is the very practical issue of child care; many mothers and fathers work fulltime jobs and desperately need caregivers for their children.
In light of the importance of early childhood school programs, why would the Philadelphia School District consider cutting full-day kindergarten in order to balance the budget? If one were to speculate on the matter they might come up with the following conclusion: the District held full-day kindergarten hostage as a means to get more money from the city and state.
As we know now, the state didn’t bite; PA Governor Tom Corbett stuck to his guns and held tight to his budget. The city, as evidenced by Mayor Nutter’s recent tax increase proposals, is going through the motions of trying to raise $110 million—not even one-quarter of the $629 million needed to balance the District’s books for the coming school year.
But as it turns out, the District doesn’t need money from the city or the state to save full-day kindergarten after all. On Friday, June 3, Superintendent Ackerman announced at an afternoon news conference, “I’ve heard the voices of the community, the voices of our dedicated parents.”
Miraculously, like the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes, the District stumbled upon federal Title I money (how did this get here?) and saved full-day kindergarten like Jesus Himself.
“We are trying our best to use the funds in a strategic way,” Dr. Ackerman told the public. The District’s “strategy,” curiously, was news to Mayor Nutter. Apparently, his office was kept in the dark about the kindergarten deal, and they were not happy.
“It’s a big problem,” Nutter spokesman Mark McDonald said Friday night after the news was announced.
Nutter needn’t feel slighted. No one, not Philadelphia City Controller Alan Butkovitz or even the IRS have a concrete understanding of the workings of the District’s finances; currently, both offices are conducting audits on the district’s books because of questionable accounting practices and “material weaknesses” found in their financial statements.
For the record, here are some known facts about the District’s finances:
- In the 2008-09 school year, the District had an operating budget of $2.75 billion and a student enrollment of 169,000. They had full-day kindergarten; art, music, and athletic programs; and all employees had jobs.
- In the 2009-10 school year, the budget grew to approximately $3 billion. Enrollment went down to 165,000.
- In the 2010-11 school year, the budget grew to $3.2 billion. Enrollment dropped to 162,000.
- In the coming 2011-12 school year, the projected budget is approximately $2.8 billion. There is now a $629 million deficit. Drastic cuts will be made. Thousands of employees will lose their jobs. Art, music, and athletic programs are all in jeopardy.
Incredibly, the words “gross mismanagement” have yet to roll from the tongue of any government official outside of State Rep. Michael McGeehan, who has bravely called for Ackerman’s resignation in order to bring some financial credibility back to the Philadelphia School District.
Of course, a lack of credibility hasn’t stopped the District from reopening contracts with school unions to ask for more concessions. Nor has it dissuaded school leaders from holding kindergarteners and their parents hostage for financial reasons.
The full-day kindergarten hostage crisis might be over in Philadelphia, but the fact that the District would use early childhood education as leverage to squeeze more money from tax payers speaks volumes about the District’s principles and its leadership.