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Gazette editorial: Wrong way on pre-K

Among the bills signed by Gov. Jim Justice this year was one to change the cutoff date when 4-year-olds will be offered preschool. Currently, school systems are required to offer preschool to all kids who turn 4 by Sept. 1 of each year. The new law sets the cutoff date on July 1, starting with the 2018-19 school year.

It sounds like a bit of bureaucratic housekeeping, but it is not. The new law means 4-year-olds must be two months older before their school system is required to offer them preschool, also known as prekindergarten and pre-K. A similar change was enacted for kindergarten, moving the cutoff date for 5-year-olds to July 1.

The arguments for this bill ran something along the lines of: “Children that age are too young for school.”

If that is true, then schools are not doing pre-K correctly.

This was actually a fear among early childhood education specialists and traditional daycare operators back in 2002, when the Legislature passed a law requiring all 4-year-olds to be offered preschool by 2012. Leaders of existing programs, such as federally funded Head Start and the better private preschools and educational daycare centers, worried that the culture and traditions of the K-12 education system would too heavily influence pre-K classrooms. Essentially, early childhood educators worried that the K-12 system would bring habits suited to older kids’ classrooms into preschool.

When bill sponsor Sen. Glenn Jeffries, D-Putnam, said he spoke with 45 teachers who told him children were starting school too early, it suggests those fears were realized, at least in some classrooms.

This raises real questions about whether people running preschool programs around the state know what they are doing.

Good preschool looks just like good educational daycare, and daycare centers take 4-years-olds, as well as 3-year-olds, toddlers and infants. They tailor their classrooms, schedules and staff to their students’ needs.

A child who is not potty trained is not too immature for preschool. Rather, preschools must be prepared to serve children who are still potty-training.

When lawmakers and educators say children are not ready for their classrooms, they are really saying their classrooms are not age- or developmentally appropriate for the children.

That’s a problem, because early childhood education is important to everything that is important to West Virginia — literacy, emotional maturity, educational achievement, college-going and completion rates, gainful employment, health and lifetime earnings. Thanks to that 2002 law, West Virginia has ranked consistently high in the nation in preschool enrollment for 4-year-olds. The next logical step was to build on past success, to maintain and improve programs and to expand access for 3-year-olds.

This bill will probably undo some of that progress. If the change closed only the poorly run classrooms, where teachers do not have experience or interest in less-mature students, that would be a good thing. No preschool is almost always better than bad preschool.

Unfortunately, the change in law could take away access to good classrooms from hundreds of families every year, causing 4-year-olds to sit out a school year when their developmental windows are open and they are ripe for good intellectual and social growth.

Among the lowest-income students, including those whose parents struggle to stay employed, the change could create an unnecessary gap, not only in education and nutrition, but also in good child care.

We encourage lawmakers and Gov. Justice to take another look at this issue and to get educated about early childhood education. This is one area where West Virginia ranks among the best, not the worst, in the country. It would be a shame to wreck that progress, and miss out on more of West Virginia’s human potential, for lack of understanding.

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