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Paid Kindergarten 

Imagine a public school system in which parents have to pay extra if they want their kids to have up-to-date textbooks instead of 20-year-old ones.

Imagine a public school system in which parents have to pay extra if they want their kids to have up-to-date textbooks instead of 20-year-old ones. Or if they want them to learn algebra and geometry instead of stopping with addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

It sounds ridiculous - and it would be. But philosophically speaking, the practice of making parents pay tuition if they want their children to have all-day kindergarten isn't any different.

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The State of Oregon provides funds to let all public schools offer a half-day of kindergarten. Back in 2004, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Susan Castillo ruled that it was okay for schools to offer a full day of kindergarten for kids whose parents were willing to pay for it. A bunch of schools throughout the state, including several in the Bend-LaPine District, took that option. But recent legal opinions ruled - correctly, in our view - that such a practice was inequitable and unlawful, and the paid kindergarten programs were suspended.

Now there's a move afoot among state lawmakers to bring them back. Sen. Vicki Walker (D-Eugene), chair of the Education and General Government Committee, reportedly has given her blessing to proposed legislation that would make paid kindergarten programs legal. Such a measure is likely to be taken up by Walker's committee when the legislature reconvenes for its emergency session next month.

Advocates of the paid-kindergarten policy argue that it doesn't hurt anybody: The kids whose parents can't afford to pay for a full day still get half a day. But that argument overlooks the whole issue of inequality.

Reams of research have shown that early childhood education is important to the success of children in their later school years. Children who receive less early childhood education will be inherently disadvantaged vis--vis other children who receive more. To add to the injustice, kids whose parents don't have the money to pay for all-day kindergarten are precisely the ones who are likely to need it the most.

Children from low-income families are eligible for the Head Start program. But Head Start is unable to enroll more than a fraction of eligible children, and it doesn't take those who have reached kindergarten age.

Of course inequality is a fact of life, in education as in pretty much everything else. Kids whose parents buy them books and laptop computers, send them to sports or science camps, enroll them in music and dancing and foreign language classes and hire special tutors will have the edge over their counterparts who don't get those extras. But the goal of public education is supposed to be to reduce inequality, not increase it - to make the playing field a bit more level, not tilt it even further.

Instead of looking for a way to make paid kindergarten legal, Oregon legislators should be finding a way to make all-day kindergarten available to all children. The paid kindergarten approach is an evasion of our public education system's true responsibility. We're giving it THE BOOT, and we hope the legislature will too.

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