Thursday, January 7, 2010

4K in Madison : Some Answers but More Questions

On Monday night, the Madison Board of Education will vote on whether to implement 4-year-old kindergarten. It has taken the Madison school district years to get to this point, and for some time it looked like 4K would not happen. Several obstacles were removed in the past year, however, and the district was able to work with community early childhood educators and with Madison Teachers, Inc., to arrive at a model that is acceptable to the district, the community, and the teachers' union.

That's the good news. On Monday night, there are two outstanding issues that will need to be resolved: financing for the first two years and, the start date for the first 4K cohort. I speak for myself, but believe that my board colleagues would agree that the need and value for such a program was resolved some time ago, so the issues are not whether to implement 4K, but rather the best way to proceed. 

Financing 4K start-up 

Wthout going into detail on the painful irony involved in Governor Doyle and Superintendent Evers promoting 4K as part of Wisconsin's Race to the Top application, it is fair to say that a good deal of the past half year has revolved around valiant district efforts to secure 4K start-up funding from the State of Wisconsin. It hasn't gone well and there is no state start-up funding, nor  can we use state ARRA funds, which could cover the costs but cannot be used for 4K. The district will receive phased-in state aid for students enrolled in the program, but must underwrite the full cost of 4K during the start-up phase, to the tune of around $3.5 million.

Sort of ironic, then, that the Race to the Top gurus place so much value on a program for which we cannot get state funds? Oops! Wait a minute! We 'might' get some 4K funds IF Wisconsin gets Race to the Top funding. As I said, there are some ironies to be considered here.

Add to the financial picture the loss of 15% of our state aid last year, and anticipated loss of another 15% next year (and who knows about the future), the financial stress that many taxpayers are under, and the poor economic recovery, and it is clear that the cost of 4K cannot simply be passed along as property taxes. (The estimate is that it would be around $40/year on a $250,000 home in year 1).

In November, administration proposed a financial plan that would cover start-up costs through phased-in reimbursement for community partners. The board rejected this plan as an unreasonable financial burden on local early childhood educators, and one that would make it impossible for many community partners to be part of the Madison district's 4K program. Since these are the most experienced providers, and they do not need the construction or equipment purchases that will be necessary for programs operated by MMSD, this did not seem like an appropriate way to handle start-up costs.

The good news is that financing the start-up costs is the area in which we are closest to a resolution. Last Monday, Assistant Superintendent Erik Kass presented several options to the board for financing start-up. The options are related to other work that we are doing to refinance district debt (take advantage of low interest rates and free up resources for uses other than interest payments), and provide choices that are more palatable than adding to the property tax load. The board will choose the financing option on January 11 at the regular meeting.

Choosing a Start Date 

This is an issue that has come to the board in the past few days, and several of us have requested information from administration to ensure that we understand whether the structures are in place to implement 4K in 2010 as originally planned, or it would be better to wait until 2011 as some local providers are requesting.

When I go back and look at the information that we received from the working group of community providers and district staff that worked out the models for implementing 4K, community providers were clear that they would need to have a decision by November 2009 in order to implement in Aug-Sept 2010. These are providers who have existing programs with experienced teachers in place and facilities that meet standards for pre-school facilities. Presumably the programs that would be housed in Madison schools would need even more time because those programs would need to post jobs and hire staff, remodel facilities, and purchase supplies and equipment for multiple sites.

I do not know what the board will ultimately decide for a start date, but I can tell you what I need to know and have asked administration to answer so that I can make an informed decision:
1) Do we know how many of the potential community providers are enrolling or have already gone through the enrollment process for their 4-year-old programs for fall 2010? I know that we've only heard from one, but don't have a feel for how many programs would be affected by our late decision (I suspect that programs that have already gone through enrollment would have trouble participating because they've already committed their slots for next fall). 

2) Would we have an RFP ready to go if we decide to start in 2010? If so, how long would it take from the time the RFP is released and the time that providers are selected? Going back to the November 2009 date, do we know how notification of a contract award in Feb 2010 (or later) would affect participation rates among community providers? 

3) If the RFP has not been developed, can you tell us how long it will take to get the RFP finalized and distributed?

4) Are the master contracts that will be signed  developed, or is there still work to do on the contract language? E.g., if we were ready to award contracts tomorrow, would the documents be ready to be filled in and signed?

5) Have the sites for the MMSD-run programs been selected? If so, how many will need remodeling or other renovation to be fully equipped and ready as 4K classrooms by August?

6) What will be the process and time line for hiring and mobilizing the teachers and aides for MMSD programs?

7) If it appeared that it would be impractical and/or counterproductive to try to start in fall 2010, could we still borrow the money and hold it in a separate account until it is needed to meet the additional 4K financial obligations?

Other board members have asked their own questions, and I expect that we all are looking forward to learning the answers. On a personal note, I find it troubling that there were not were not quick and easy answers to the questions that I asked, which I would expect if the plans were well underway and ready to implement for 2010.

If we aren't far enough along to implement in 2010, it is not the end of the world but we need to know that now. What is important is that the board has the information that it needs to approve a program that will get it right for the first class of 4K students.