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Published: Thursday, 10/11/2007

Kindergarten, all day

EXPERTS agree that early childhood education is vitally important. Yet many Ohio public elementary schools still don't have all-day kindergarten programs because the General Assembly has failed to provide the money.

Legally, the state requires only half-day kindergarten, but it pays for all-day classes in urban districts like Toledo Public Schools. As a result, many districts do not offer all-day kindergarten because they cannot afford it. Those that want the full-day session but are "too well-off" to receive state funding either absorb the costs or charge tuition. That is separate, unequal, and unfair.

Currently, 70 percent of Ohio public schools have all-day kindergarten. Funding methods vary widely. The state pays for a full day of classes in Ohio's urban and low-wealth districts. But many, like Maumee, Perrysburg, and Woodmore, charge tuition to offset salaries, supplies, and, in some cases, construction costs.

The Ohio Department of Education sought an opinion about this issue from Attorney General Marc Dann. He said there is no exception in the law that would allow districts to charge for all-day kindergarten.

At the same time, the state board of education doesn't have the power to prevent districts from charging tuition. That forces the issue on the legislature, which previously rejected the board's petition to fund the all-day sessions.

Meanwhile, the board has been reduced to asking the legislature to pass a law allowing districts that don't get poverty-based funding to charge tuition on a sliding scale in order to compensate for the lawmakers' failure to provide funding for all-day kindergarten in every district.

State Sen. Steve Stivers (R., Columbus) may introduce a bill to allow districts to charge. That, however, is wrongheaded. If the legislature permits this, schools are bound to be hit with lawsuits alleging unequal treatment under the law, because that's what it is.

To charge for class time makes a mockery of the idea of free public education, which is guaranteed by the state constitution. It's one thing to ask for fees for sports and music equipment, or supplies for art or other subjects, but it's a different matter to charge extra in some districts but not others.

The General Assembly should fund all-day kindergarten in every school district, both as a matter of fairness and because it will increase our children's learning potential in their formative years, when every experience is crucial in charting their lifetime course.

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