Laying the foundation

One of the worthwhile recommendations in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink California Performance Review is to require children to turn 5 by Sept. 1 to be eligible to enter kindergarten. But the review doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Kindergarten is no longer mostly about playing with blocks and finger-painting. It has serious academic content now, and many children aren’t ready for it at age 4. At a time when many school districts are preparing to expand their half-day kindergarten programs to full day, it makes sense for 4-year-olds to hold off for another year. In fact, 45 states now require that kindergarteners be 5 years old.

But it would be a mistake to buy into the review team’s rationalization that this should be viewed as a money-saving measure. Any money saved should be plowed back into programs for young children, including increased preschool options as well as expanded English-language immersion programs for the hundreds of thousands of preschoolers who speak a different language at home. Better to spend the money at the front end of these kids’ educations than on remedial programs later, when their language difficulties have put them behind their peers.

Just as important, the state should make kindergarten mandatory. First-grade curricula are built on the foundation of kindergarten, and yet an estimated 5-9 percent of California children begin their education in the first grade—and already behind.

We know now that these first years of education are the most important ones in our children’s lives. Kids who get a good start do well throughout their school careers. Reforming kindergarten and expanding preschool availability make good sense.