Best Starts or blank check?

  • Friday, May 18, 2018 8:23am
  • Opinion

Public efforts to expand early child education across the country and, most recently in Juneau under the Best Starts proposal, seem counter-intuitive. After all, when dissatisfied with the results public education has delivered so far in Alaska, why are we considering sizeable expenditures to get even more of it — this time by starting earlier?

According to proponents, pre-K education is necessary since three out of five children in Juneau are not ready for kindergarten. But is that really the issue?

Last year, Alaska education officials released 2017 testing results from a new test tool known as PEAKs. Only 45 percent of third-graders tested proficient in math, but by the 10th grade less than 15 percent were considered proficient. In English Language Arts, students suffered a 13 percent decline in proficiency between 6th grade and 10th grade.

These results suggest we need changes in our existing education system — not an expansion of it.

To be accurate, Best Starts wouldn’t be offered in public schools but delivered by private daycare providers although funded primarily through government sources and coordinated by the school district.

Critics of existing pre-K programs (including Head Start) note they have delivered underwhelming results. Gains often “fade out” as children progress beyond kindergarten. Skeptics of universal pre-K’s educational benefits see the program’s true purpose as subsidized childcare.

Wisely, the City and Borough of Juneau Finance Committee declined to approve the $2.18 million request to fund the two-year pilot program.

The request didn’t identify a funding source and wasn’t able to gain needed support for passage — failing by a 3-6 vote. Assembly members Jesse Kiehl, Rob Edwardson and Loren Jones voted in favor of the proposal while Mayor Ken Koelsch and Assembly members Jerry Nankervis, Maria Gladziszewki, Mary Becker, Norton Gregory and Beth Weldon voted against it.

While some members indicated they would support a public vote for Best Starts, no one suggested how it could be funded.

Only a fraction of the daycare workers currently working in Juneau have the qualifications or experience to teach a pre-K curriculum. Best Starts, however well-intentioned, is first and foremost an initiative to expand daycare facilities. Indeed, their presentation emphasized the cost and lack of childcare providers with only the most general reference to educational staffing and goals.

Weighing heavily in the decision no doubt was the realization this request was just the beginning. Calling it a two-year trial program is, at best, misleading. Can any program of this magnitude be evaluated fully in that time? Can you encourage new daycare businesses to open — or existing ones to expand — if funding may dry up in two years? The pressure to continue the program with or without measurable results would be substantial.

Best Starts projections reflected continuing support from CBJ rising to $2.8 million annually by the fifth year. Advocates claim this would enable doubling local daycare spaces from 412 to 828. Total annual program costs would increase to $5.2 million which pencils out to $12,500 per year for each new daycare slot.

Yet this program mainly encompasses 4-year old’s — expansion to 3-year old’s would be the next request. Additional quality levels would further expand coverage and cost.

Unfortunately, CBJ’s contribution, as envisioned, would not directly impact the current average cost of private daycare for most Juneau parents — now estimated at $10,370 annually per child. (Need-based scholarships are available for low-income families). CBJ funds would go toward rewarding daycare programs for increasing teacher wages, bonuses for quality achievement, required training and a school district coordinator.

Another concern is the CBJ contribution would only comprise about half of the cost of Best Starts. The balance of funding consists of a patchwork of government and non-profit grants. If any one of these sources didn’t materialize, it’s likely Juneau residents would be asked to make up the difference.

Up to now, the CBJ Assembly has been generous in funding some limited selected programs to enhance early childhood development. Investments in KinderReady and HEARTS along with fee and tax exemptions are aimed at both improving pre-K school readiness as well as expanding daycare opportunities.

Best Starts, however, is a giant leap of faith with no clear end in sight.

• Win Gruening retired as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in 2012. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is active in community affairs as a 30-plus year member of Juneau Downtown Rotary Club and has been involved in various local and statewide organizations. He contributes a regular column to the Juneau Empire. My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire.

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